Bulgarian Donors Forum
Dame Stephanie Shirley
Founding Ambassador for Philanthropy
First, I want to thank the leadership of the Bulgarian Donors Forum, and in particular Krasimira Velichkova, its director, for inviting me to speak today. It is a pleasure to be here in Bulgaria, historically the crossroad of various civilisations, and among all of you who are passionate about the issues of giving. Bulgaria, and the work of the Bulgarian Donors Forum and other leadership organisations, has made impressive gains in their commitment to develop modern philanthropic leaders. We are very impressed with the vitality of the sector here and its push for doing more to advance strategic social investment.
I hope today to add to your understanding of philanthropy, by outlining a little of my own story, including its business success and my commitment to putting my wealth to work. I will then go on to consider how my tenure, as the British government's founding Ambassador for Philanthropy 2009-2010, has led to the idea of giving philanthropists a voice worldwide. By having countries appoint their own Ambassador (s) for Philanthropy, including right here in Bulgaria.
I will be urging you to join together with us to unleash philanthropy - but more on that later.
* * * * * * *
Let me introduce myself.
Everyone's life has three parts: learning, earning, and returning; the giving back. I certainly learnt a great deal in my early life as an unaccompanied child refugee. When I was five years old, my German Jewish parents did a very brave thing. They sent me to England on a Kindertransport, into the arms of strangers, thinking never to see me again.
One of 10,000 girls and boys, I arrived in London stateless, penniless and without a word of English. Actually, my father had taught me some phrases - like "slow combustion stove" and "windscreen wiper" - but I did not know how to ask to go to the bathroom.
I was lucky. The family was later reunited. I was fostered by a wonderful British couple who brought me up as they would their own. I am their child really. I was a hardworking child, collecting blackberries and rosehips, picking potatoes and all the things children were then expected to do. I supported an animal charity and learnt to volunteer to help at events so that I could get into them for free. That childhood influenced me in three ways.
I learnt in those years to cope with change and to welcome that tomorrow is different from today and nothing like yesterday. I also learnt to deal with my survivor guilt - the irrational depression at having survived when so many millions died - by making each day count ... to make my life worth saving. Finally, as a migrant, I love my country with a passion perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.
* * * * * * *
Now for the earning phase of my life. I'm often asked for the secrets of commercial success. One secret is to choose your partner very carefully. The other day, when I said, "My husband's an angel", a woman complained, "You're lucky, mine's still alive".
In my first job, I went to evening classes for years to get my degree. And volunteering again provided my social life. Later I founded a 20th century cottage industry for women with computer skills that eventually became a large and successful public company. It was a company of women; a company for women. I was a pathfinder in the professionalism of women - especially in the hi-tech industries - and for years I was the first woman this, the first woman that.
If my life has a theme, it is empowerment - empowerment of women, empowerment of colleagues and the workforce, and empowerment of people with disabilities.
In those days no one expected much from working women; all expectations were about home and family responsibilities. I couldn't accept that and challenged the current conventions, even adopting the name Steve in business letters to get through the door before anyone realised that he was actually a she.
I wanted opportunities for women to combine a professional career with bringing up a family. I recruited professionally qualified women who had left the computer industry to marry or have children, and structured them into a home-working organisation.
The employment policy then was simple: "Jobs for women with children" and later "Careers for women with children". Later still, recruiting more women who had disabled husbands and elderly parents, we changed it again to "Careers for women with dependents". Thirteen years after we started, employment equality legislation made positive discrimination illegal, so we let men in "if they were good enough!"
Let's talk about giving back.
Not only did my company's success make me wealthy (at one time I could be found a few places behind our Queen in the UK's female Rich List) but I gained my Dameship for services to information technology.
I now live modestly in retirement with my husband, with my time spent on the returning phase of my life. I have a wonderful life, working hard with interesting people on worthwhile projects.
Gone are the days when women only became wealthy by marrying or inheriting money. Since all my wealth comes from that computer software company, I started off by giving shares away, firstly to the staff and then to various charities. To avoid having to choose between bureaucracy or a heavy tax penalty, I set up a charitable foundation, the Shirley Foundation.
The Shirley Foundation's mission was to be: pioneering - no matter how worthy, we don't just do more of the same - strategic, by which I mean that, if successful, the project makes a real difference, though we know that pioneering projects can and do fail. If we had 100% success, I'd reckon we were not taking sufficient risk.
Because of my professional background, some big social investment have concerned informational technology, from education to exploring the social, economic, legal and ethical issues of the internet. But the vast bulk has gone on work related to the lifelong developmental disability of autism, which hampers people's communication and social interaction, and was my late son's disorder.
* * * * * * *
Giles was our only child, a beautiful baby who turned into a wild, unmanageable toddler. He went to a good primary school for non-communicating children and we had some relatively calm years. But he flipped completely when puberty hit, we couldn't find a secondary school that would take him, and things only got worse. When he was 13, I broke down completely and we both finished up in hospital. Giles stayed in a locked ward for 11 years. Autism can be a devastating disorder and there is as yet no cure.
My first big autism project had Giles as the first resident in the first home of the first charity I set up. It now supports 52 adults. All with autism and what is euphemistically called "challenging" behaviour.
I believe that giving is a social and cultural activity not merely a financial transaction. Sure, money can be given as a compassionate act of detachment. In giving to make a difference, I try to make it a committed act of love. I started with that hands-on support service for my late son. Love transcends death. Autism continues as the ongoing focus of my life.
My biggest project, financially, took five years. It was to create a specialist school that today has 60 day and residential pupils, all with both autism and learning disabilities, while few have any speech.
Over the years, wherever I found a gap - from medical research to family support or political awareness - I tried to help, whether through charities, university research centres, parliamentary groups or new institutions. There have been donations, large and small – the small ones always given regularly to allow the recipients to plan - but every one was accompanied by involvement, and the commitment of my time and skills. It is demeaning to "just" give money - and anyway one wants the fun, the adrenalin buzz, of commitment. If you don't commit, you're just taking up space.
* * * * * * *
Let me talk a bit more about giving. I put as much effort into learning to give money away wisely - and take just as much satisfaction - as I got from earning it in the first place. Like alchemy, so far over £50 million has been transmuted from figures on a sheet of paper to something meaningful.
I feel that giving has made my wealth significant. Giving is now what I do and it gives me enormous pleasure. It's the right thing to do, and giving makes me feel good.
My personal belief is that giving should be proactive, ambitious and focused on results. My aim is always to be professional, efficient and effective. Over the years my giving has become more and more strategic. The money may be important but passion and the human touch must also be there, so as not to patronise beneficiaries. I know from having received charity myself and been expected to be grateful, how easy it is to patronise. So I give with a warm hand and liberal spirit, and I give now - what's the fun of writing gifts into my last Will and Testament?
I am so lucky to have something to wake up for in the morning. I meet more interesting people, travel purposefully to more interesting places – like my visit to your magnificent city – and feel more fulfilled as a social entrepreneur than I ever did in the years spent making money. Giving and the service of others is making my modest fortune significant. The more I give away, the richer my life seems to become.
* * * * * * *
Now let me explain about my work as the British government's Founding Ambassador for Philanthropy and my pledge to inspire the idea that giving is a pleasurable act of desire and compassion to help, change or challenge any aspect of society by raising the bar on our capacity to be generous.
I was humbled to be asked by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to take this honorary post. Apparently I was selected because people thought I represented a modern model of philanthropy. I hope my selection was because I'd moved on from being a 'cheque writing giver' into one with strategic ambitions and goals.
I had certainly learnt to speak publicly about my giving, to empower others to emerge from anonymity and share their philanthropic experiences and motives. I'd made my own money, and was a woman, breaking barriers along the way. I also had first hand knowledge of the goodness and generosity of the British welcoming me as a child. I have always been thankful for being welcomed. And never forgot. And shall never forget.
To be honest and frank with you, it is likely that the original idea for an Ambassadorial position was, well, un-thought out. There was no 'brief', or 'Dame Stephanie this is what we'd like you to do'. Just the opposite. It was a blank slate. An open door into an empty room, all white and permeated in light.
And this suited me just fine. "Ambassador for Philanthropy". Just think of it. I would rise to the title and forge a vision that would be ambitious and inclusive, that would speak for those founders and givers who had come before me down the ages, those who had left their mark. People such as Georgiev who funded the University here; and Iosif who gave generously to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. People who still inspire us today, to make life better across the board for our fellow creatures of the universe.
In stark contrast to another big giving country, the USA, Britain had not been known for 'talking out loud about our giving'… so I felt that if I do or did anything lasting at all I was to give "philanthropists a voice" and encourage them to talk about it - their giving - so that others may understand and begin to talk as well about why and who they give to.
A 'voice' into 1) government; 2) the media and 3) charities.
So, one of the 'seeds' sown has been our original web site, www.ambassadorsforphilanthropy.com, which has videos of philanthropists - including myself - discussing giving; the nuts and bolts, the motives and emotions, the problems and delights. And for those who say the reserved British don't talk about money or what they do with it, this site proved that we Brits are open to sharing with others our unique stories of putting money to good use. We learn from stories. They have influence. That's why I've shared my story, and others are sharing theirs.
From the website, we began to get enquiries from around the world asking how countries could appoint their own Ambassador(s) for Philanthropy. Then we got an invitation to give a keynote speech at a convening meeting in Barbados of all the Commonwealth countries – (there are 53 of them, all once a vital part of the British empire.) That was a turning point. There appeared to be a vital interest of how philanthropy – and in particular – personal, strategic giving could be enlivened... positioned... seeded... embodied... within the citizenry of both developed and evolving countries around the globe.
From there we began forming partnerships with the British Council and other global bodies that have in-country, long standing relationships with governments and started thinking about organising a global summit. This Summit, now in development, would bring together country representatives and delegations to jumpstart the idea of appointing Ambassador(s) for Philanthropy, and working together. Additionally, we would invite philanthropists from each country to bring their voice into the dialog; as well as nonprofit organisations who are 'members' of the Ambassador(s) for Philanthropy project, representing their own donor's issues and ideas.
More about our 'members'.
We have just launched our Members drive to global nonprofits and charities that wish to give their own 'philanthropists and donors' a "Voice" by uploading their personal videos to the Ambassador(s) website, telling why they support 'the member's' mission. Corporates, foundations and individuals are being invited also to join and get their messages out.
There's a new video App called "Give Voice" that lets the broadcasting of the philanthropist's voice happen easily, with little fuss and no fancy cameras or editing. Just the philanthropist's face and voice and passion, the basics for communicating directly.
We are pleased to announce that the Bulgarian Donors Forum will become a strategic member and will be influential in assisting us in organising our global summit. The Forum will function as an outstanding model to promote the idea of countries appointing their own Ambassadors(s) for Philanthropy and the art of strategic philanthropy.
So, welcome to the movement.
We welcome you in the audience to join us, too, by going to the ambassadorsforphilanthropy.com website and signing up.
In summing up, let me say, across the world, we know that philanthropy is a promising force for good, channeling resources from the successful and wealthy to invest in charities, community groups and social enterprises to solve problems and benefit others.
Yet I am convinced that the potential for strategic philanthropy remains significantly unfulfilled, held back by many factors, from tax regulations and bureaucratic rules to the lack or (loss) of a giving culture and the limited number of donor role models able to influence others by being willing to discuss why and how they give.
How can a country achieve the essential changes in behaviour and attitudes to foster greater giving, and ensure that it offers a giving-friendly legislative context? I think an Ambassador for Philanthropy is a great way to prompt change by providing a focus and impetus for action, by highlighting the needs and potential, and by a suitable individual using their profile, personality and contacts to inspire many others to offer more of their wealth, skills and time. It's not just money.
So how does a country like Bulgaria start? There is one difficult but vital point to get right first. An Ambassador for Philanthropy must have independence as well as access, so the individual has the ear of government yet is able to challenge established thinking and existing practice. It's obvious why this must be: philanthropy is independent, creative, free-willed. It will not flourish if seen as beholden to government or serving anyone's interests except the donor and the recipient.
Next, a budget for communications, events and publications, and a small staff – underwritten and funded by the Ambassador – will help ensure efforts to encourage greater giving reach the right targets; while liaison and regular reporting through a single senior minister's or cabinet member's office would allow productive dialogue and good coordination with other government departments.
Policies are one thing, implementing them in another. So who should a government choose? The ideal would be someone with the time to devote to the task, a track record as a philanthropist, an excellent reputation, good media skills and the willingness to be persistent in urging necessary changes. I'm sure each of you can think of suitable 'candidate or two' for any shortlist.
So today I have an invitation to extend to everyone here that I believe can be of enormous long-term benefit. I am convinced that the concept of an Ambassador for Philanthropy is something that can work in each and every country; especially here in Bulgaria where the total volume of donations (financial and in-kind) is growing steadily every year – even during years of financial crisis. I am equally convinced that we can achieve even more by working together on such an idea, inspiring all of us to be generous, and fostering the conditions in which such generosity can achieve its greatest impact for good.
Let us unleash philanthropy together!
Copyright November 2011
Dame Stephanie Shirley
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