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Resource Alliance 30th International Fundraising Congress, Netherlands

Speech given at the Resource Alliance 30th International Fundraising Congress, Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

The British Government's Founding Ambassador for Philanthropy


Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of the Resource Alliance's 30th International Fundraising Congress. I believe wholeheartedly in the mission of the Resource Alliance and it has been very exciting to be a part of the Awards Selection Committee honouring those who have demonstrated leadership and vision in advancing philanthropy in so many parts of the world.

Having examples of excellence in fundraising makes us all strive to achieve outcomes we had only imagined were possible. We see in others' success how we, too, can rise to any and all challenges that come before us.

That we should come together now, at this time, is simply pure serendipity.

As the British Government's founding Ambassador for Philanthropy, we have expanded our brief from working strictly in the UK to give 'philanthropists' a voice' to promoting the idea of Ambassador(s) for Philanthropy being appointed by governments in countries around the world.

Yes, Britain was the first - and at this point - the only country to have appointed a philanthropist to lead the charge of promoting strategic giving in-country. But now we have a long list of countries asking our guidance of how such an official appointment may lead to a more robust philanthropic society - and on a global scale.

From that global interest we have made a commitment to reach out to governments worldwide. And you can help.

But more on this a bit later.

I want first to present my credentials:

I'm an IT entrepreneur turned ardent philanthropist. As my projects became more ambitious they involved serious fundraising. I learnt about giving early. I arrived in London as an unaccompanied child refugee in 1939, stateless, penniless and without a word of English. And love my country with a passion perhaps only someone who had lost their human rights can feel.

* * * * * * *

My giving was very much aligned with a vigorous career with my own software house. This started in 1962 as a social enterprise. A company of women, a company for women. I was the first woman this, the only woman that.

Success allowed my husband and I to improve our lifestyle but we didn't wish to change it completely. So we live modestly with my time in retirement spent on charitable activities.

All my wealth comes from that software house so I started by giving shares to the workforce, and then to various charities and not for profits (mainly universities).

The Shirley Foundation is Pioneering - no matter how worthy, we don't just do more of the same, and Strategic – by which I mean that if successful (pioneering projects can and do fail and if we had 100% success, I'd reckon we were not taking sufficient risk) but if successful make a real difference.

In the two fields I know and care about: Because of my professional background, some big donations have concerned information 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 disorder of autism; autism hampers people's communication and social interaction. It 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 school for non-communicating children and we had some relatively calm years. But he flipped completely when puberty hit, we couldn't find a 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. I came out of mine in a month; and was back at work within the year; Giles stayed in a locked hospital ward for 11 years. Autism can be a devastating disorder and there is as yet no cure.

My first big project (with my son as the first resident in the first home of my first charity) took my spare cash for 17 years and now supports over 50 adults with both autism and what is euphemistically called "challenging behaviour".

The biggest gift was to the very special Prior's Court day and residential school for pupils with both autism and learning disability. That took only five years! An autism specific agricultural college is to open next year.

Philanthropists are like everyone else; we're motivated by pleasure. Each person knows if it's children or disability or animals or green issues or the developing world, or the elderly that interest us.

* * * * * * *

Now on to what I am doing internationally to appoint country "Ambassador(s) for Philanthropy and how you can help.

Across the world, we know that philanthropy is a promising force for good, channelling resources from the successful and wealthy to invest in non-profits, community groups and social enterprises to benefit others.

Yet I am convinced that the potential for philanthropy remains significantly unfulfilled, held back by many factors, from tax regulations and bureaucratic rules to the lack of a giving culture. Then there is the limited number of donor role models able to influence others by being willing to discuss why and how they contribute - discuss out loud.

How can a country, your country, achieve the essential changes in behaviour and attitudes to foster greater giving, and ensure that it offers a giving-friendly legislative context? I believe that 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.
  • So how could you start? As a creative member of a non-profit organisation you can propose, at a grass roots level, the idea of an "Ambassador for Philanthropy" to your government.

There is one difficult but vital point to get right first in such a proposal. An Ambassador for Philanthropy must have access and independence, 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, and will not flourish if seen as beholden to government or serving anyone's interests except the donor and 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.

Liaison and regular reporting through a single senior minister's office, with a dedicated public servant, would allow productive dialogue and good coordination with other government departments.

Who might 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 you can think of suitable individuals for any shortlist.

So the call is simple: I urge everyone here to consider the potential of an Ambassador for Philanthropy to unleash giving in their villages, communities and countries around the world.

To join this movement, go to our website - www.ambassadorforphilanthropy.com and sign up as a 'Member'; membership opens next month but express interest now and we will begin to work together.

Let's unleash philanthropy around the world! Together.

Thank you.

Copyright October 2010

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Tel: +44 (0) 1491 579004
Fax: +44 (0) 1491 574995
Email: steve@steveshirley.com
Website: www.steveshirley.com

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The word 'inspiring' is greatly overused, but Stephanie Shirley's story is one of those rare cases in which it truly applies. This book is an extraordinary tale of creativity and resilience, and of the power of well-targeted philanthropy to transform the world.
Oliver Burkeman, Guardian journalist and author

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I feel lucky to count myself one of Steve’s friends, and I am so happy that, by sharing her story with us in the pages of this book, she will inevitably acquire many more admirers and fans. We may never be able to achieve a fraction of her success and influence, but the example of her generosity and unflagging attempts to use her hard won fortune to do good will inspire all of us to do just that bit more to leave the world a slightly better place than we found it.
Jane Asher


A wonderful, inspirational, living, breathing life of a book.
Stuart Ongley, SGO Music


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