In this occasional series of interviews with the City's leading philanthropists we aim to bring guidance and inspiration to others.
Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is a highly successful entrepreneur turned philanthropist. Dame Shirley arrived in Britain aged 5 in 1939 as an unaccompanied child refugee escaping from Nazi Europe. In 1962 she founded her first software company, Xansa, which revoluntionised the position of women in the workplace. After retiring in 1993 she turned her focus to philanthropy, primarily autism; her son Giles was autistic and died in 1998. She is also committed to making better use of IT in the voluntary sector. Her charitable Shirley Foundation is one of the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK. In 2009 Dame Stephanie Shirley was appointed as the National Ambassador of Philanthropy by the UK government.
What does philanthropy mean to you?
To me giving is a social and cultural activity not merely a financial transaction. Money alone is seldom the answer. Sure, it can be a compassionate act of detachment. I try to make it a committed act of love. And add my time and business skills.
How would you describe your philanthropy and what is your goal?
Innovative – never more of the same, no matter how worthy. And strategic. What do I mean by that? Projects that if successful make a real difference in the sea of need.
One goal is for a national strategy for autism by end 2017.
What was your first experience of philanthropy?
Strangers gave me a loving home when I arrived as an unaccompanied child refugee from Nazi Europe in 1939.
Even though I ostensibly lost everything I was the fortunate beneficiary of the unearned generosity of many people:
- The Jewish and Christian activists who set up the Kindertransport;
- The Quakers who kept the project going when it ran out of money;
- The Catholic nuns who helped to educate me;
- All the volunteers who did the admin – without which nothing gets done;
- and the quiet, middle-aged, nominally Anglican couple who took me into their home. And into their hearts.
All good strangers who did what giving people do and came forward to help.
Do you feel you are making a difference? If so how?
As a member of the founding Court of the IT livery company, I gave it a £5m benefaction (after some anonymous research). This facilitated the IT Hall, the first new Hall in the City for 50 years; and strengthened its charitable arm which, leveraged by members’ time and skills, is making a real difference in the City.
In 2009/10 I served as the National Ambassador for Philanthropy to bring philanthropy into the mainstream. I’m also proud of my impact in the autism sector, where my social investments have topped £50m.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to date?
Responding positively and without patronising to the many requests for funding which are totally outside my mission which is:
Facilitation and support of pioneering projects with strategic impact in the field of autism spectrum disorders with particular emphasis on medical research.
Has your philanthropy had an impact on your personal or professional life?
Giving is all that I do now. As one gets older, the intangibles of life become more significant than the material. The gradual understanding that the world and everything and everyone in it are interconnected, fuels my longing to help, to share my riches. I feel an urgency to pursue life’s goals. To move from success to significance. To link the past into the future.
Of what are you most proud?
Having achieved some element of fame and influence, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to do more or less what I like with my life. I’m proud to be able to contribute to my adopted country.
Why is philanthropy important today?
The ‘philanthropist voice’ is both singular and part of a chorus; singular in the sense that each person has their own vision of how they want to engage, participate and endow the common good; but part of the chorus in that the ‘doing or giving’ becomes part of each society’s expression of itself or ‘who we are’.
Governments need to hear that voice, otherwise the politicians believe that when they have to make cuts into services they can abrogate their responsibilities. And that somehow philanthropists will make up the difference and “save the day”. Some naïve governments think that is how giving works. But ‘giving’ is voluntary. Just because someone or something ‘needs’ support, does not mean that that ‘need’ will appeal to the donor or philanthropist.
The media should have a more sophisticated approach to reporting on philanthropists… to find a way to value as well as critique our work. The only way they are going to do that is if we openly engage with them.
What advice would you give to people starting out on their own journey?
- Concentrate on things you know and care about.
- Start small and local. See how you go.
- Voice your support to encourage others.