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100 years of pioneering philanthropy

Martyn Evans croppedIn the centenary year of the Carnegie UK Trust, chief executive Martyn Evans looks back over its 100 years of innovative social change and argues for the need for greater partnerships to tackle today’s social issues.

Q. Andrew Carnegie’s purpose in establishing the Trust in 1913 was ‘the improvement of the wellbeing of the masses of the people of Great Britain and Ireland’. How has the trust stuck to and developed this purpose in the last 100 years?

A. Organisations tend not to have long memories so it’s been a fascinating process looking through the archives to see the work Carnegie funded in the past. We gave Leonard Cheshire its first grant for example. The chief executive approached us for £600 for central heating and we ended up giving them £60,000 for a new house. That was the start of a relationship that has lasted a long time. We funded or supported some of the UK’s best-known charities and organisations including the Plunkett Foundation, the Workers’ Educational Association, Toynbee Hall and Centrepoint. Much of the landscape of the 20th century was built by philanthropic organisations and Carnegie played a key part in that. We’ve launched a website and book to celebrate our centenary.

Andrew Carnegie talked about improving the wellbeing of the people of Great Britain and Ireland and the idea of wellbeing is still central to what we do. It’s part of our DNA and a lot of our work is about how to define wellbeing in the 21st century, how we move from welfare to wellbeing and what role the state should play. We’re keen on the idea of assets – to encourage people through philanthropy to follow their own innate desire to do something for themselves. Today’s debate is about the appropriate role of the community versus the state and community has much more of a role to play now in terms of taking control of assets. Here in Scotland for example taking control of land is very important and community land trusts are transforming land ownership.

Q. You now take a more strategic approach to investments, with grantmaking less of a focus. Can you explain the change?

A. We became an operating trust in 2005 and now use our income to make grants in partnership. In the past we would give short-term grants to organisations supporting communities and voluntary action but we now approach organisations ourselves and are much more proactive. We fund our own research and look for partnerships in our practice work.

It’s very valuable for a trust to have partnerships with councils and other organisations and to put call-outs for innovative ideas. For Test Town for example we asked young people to come up with ideas around how to make a difference in towns. Our Neighbourhoood News programme – which is looking for innovative ways of gathering and disseminating local information – has had 77 applications. This is not grantmaking but seeing people as partners. The idea is that we’re all in it together and we have to find out something together, using our skills as a trust and bringing in others to help.

Q. What can philanthropy do that other types of funding can’t?

A. We are asked to take risks and risk-taking is one of the things foundations should consider. Foundations should do things you couldn’t do if you we’re a public sector provider or that would be too risky if you were a financial operator.

That means failure, sometimes very significant failure. In the last major recession in the 1930s Carnegie Trust set up a scheme to provide smallholdings to unemployed people. It failed because the people working on the land were very isolated and it’s extremely hard work. It seemed obvious at the time – they have no work, they could be given some land to provide for themselves – but the evaluation shows how stressful and difficult it was. But it was worth doing.

We have also stopped doing things. For example for a while we worked on the basis of a commission-based approach, relying on commissions of enquiry to decide the focus of our work. We ran a very successful Commission for Rural Community Development for example, which completed in 2007. But commissions last quite a long time and are expensive and at the last review we decided to get rid of them and shift our approach towards shorter research projects. Every five years the trust holds a review and the great advantage of that is to maintain a strong vitality and keep us risk-taking and relevant. Two things are changing in the twenty-first century: there’s a greater interest in local funding – e.g. community shares – and there’s social investment which asks for a return on funding. Both have an impact on philanthropy.

Q. The name Carnegie is associated most heavily with library provision and Carnegie worked closely with the public sector to expand the network of libraries in the UK and Ireland. As public libraries find themselves under pressure, could we see similar public/philanthropic partnerships emerging?

A. Carnegie’s method was to build and equip libraries, but only on condition that the local authority matched that by providing the land and a budget for operation and maintenance. He worked with libraries on the condition that a penny was put on books. That makes for sustainable work. There’s no point in a grand gesture that can’t last. Revenue funding is not something that any foundation can do. Partnerships are very much part of what we see in the past and the future. We want honest partnerships with local government and private organisations. But partnerships don’t always come naturally. Often there’s a degree of suspicion and each categorise the other in negative terms. Each has a rather elevated view of its own abilities. The change most of us would like to see can only come about with effective partnerships that understand the limits of each. Each sector needs the other. I absolutely believe that complex problems in the 21st century can’t be resolved without mutual trust and partnership. There will be all sorts of difficulties because they are not equal partnerships but if any one sector thinks they have the answer they will be disillusioned. The social sector often has insights and trust but it often can’t bring things to scale or be efficient. The challenge is partnership, not just for the short term, but working together to try to solve today’s wicked issues.

Andrew Carnegie impersonator reading from Pioneering Philanthropy, the new book celebrating the centenary of Carnegie UK Trust

Andrew Carnegie impersonator reading from Pioneering Philanthropy, the new book celebrating the centenary of Carnegie UK Trust

Q. Is philanthropy becoming more important as the state retreats?

A. It’s hard to see how we can replicate our impact in the 20th century but philanthropy is an increasingly important part of the narrative today. If people are successful what obligations should they have as part of 21st century society? We are a more unequal society now and issues are progressing. Not many of us can be the richest but a way to celebrate is by using their money for public good. There is a growing confidence that philanthropy by wealthy people is good for society. In the US there is much more confidence about gently chiding very rich people. We’re not so confident about that. Money is talked about differently there, there is more pride in achievement there while here it’s more private.

We’re also seeing a paradigm shift from the post war settlement to something new. There is a growing sense that communities can take more responsibility again for the things that matter to them and that the state has encroached into areas that we could do better ourselves. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Welfare needs to include education and health for example. And it’s not about austerity but about healthy communities exploring how things could be better. We’re having discussions now and will be publishing a report after the summer that will hopefully offer a clear narrative. We need to be honest about the limitations of government and have a clearer view of the obligations of family and we need to trust community more that we do. It’s a very interesting period of change.

Q. What do you consider the greatest legacy of Carnegie to be?

A. The libraries. I got a letter recently from a very bright guy working in an investment bank in the states. He’s from Skipton and he said that without Skipton library he wouldn’t be where he is. We have reopened our discussion about libraries and broadband access, which flows from the issue of libraries and access in the 21st century. There are two major issues: one is the cost of taking broadband to some rural parts, but in places like Glasgow there is also the issue of people not taking up broadband. We’re re-engaging with that debate.

Q. Where will the Carnegie UK Trust be in another 100 years?

A. We recently built an ecologically sound office in Dunfermline’s Pittencrieff Park, a park that was bought by Andrew Carnegie in 1902. In 100 years we’ll hopefully still be here in this wonderful bright office thinking and doing things about wellbeing that are risk-taking, honest and challenging.

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