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The first Briton to give away £1bn

17th Nov 2017

This week saw a quiet, private celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Gatsby Foundation. In case you haven’t heard of it, Gatsby is the charity through which David (Lord) Sainsbury has given away over £1bn. He was the first Briton ever to pass this threshold.

Set up when he was just 26, the Foundation that has gone on to give so much was named after David’s favourite Fitzgerald book – and perhaps stands in strange contrast to the characters and time the book portrays.

It is typical of David’s modest manner, and his wife Susie, a fellow philanthropist, to have a low profile event, but it is a shame that this extraordinary milestone – a billion pounds given to charitable causes – has not attracted more attention. Studies show that generosity is contagious. When we see others donating to charity and contributing to public goods, we are inspired to do the same and increase our own donations.

Fortunately, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Gatsby Foundation, the science writer Georgina Ferry has published A Better World is Possible, an account of how and where Sainsbury’s money has been spent.

David’s lifetime of giving is characterised by thoughtfulness. He studied hard in each of the areas he has given to, and, when reaching the edges of his knowledge, hired leading experts to help him give it away more effectively. Targets of his funding have included agritech; neuroscience; technical education; and improving the quality of government.

Ferry’s book details these efforts and shows how he pioneered and refined ‘doing good better’ a generation before its current profile.   

She explains why this often led David to support causes that were off the beaten path, and sometimes even unpopular. For example, while many funded food aid, David funded plant science, including GM. His logic: better to find ways of increasing crop yields across the world, and to boost local African economies through targeted investment, than pump food aid into famine-hit regions year after year. No wonder that the recommendation quote on the front cover is from Bill Gates.

By coincidence, this week also saw the announcement that the UK government is setting up a new £20m GovTech fund. It is part of an effort to stimulate more innovative approaches to solving policy challenges and should be seen in the context of rebooting the UK’s version of the famous SBRI funding stream in the USA: challenging innovators to come up with new solutions to problems, specifying outputs (or objectives) rather than inputs (or overly tightly defined solutions or deliverables).

It’s the kind of approach that David Sainsbury himself argued for when he served as Science Minister – a way of challenging and stimulating the scientific and business community to join forces to find new and innovative solutions. This time we could add the extra spark of behavioural sciences and bring forward some truly great proposals for the fund.

Most of us will never have a billion pounds to give away, but we can nonetheless learn something from David Sainsbury’s remarkable contribution. As he writes, in a short forward to A Better World is Possible:

“Managing the Trust has been for me and my wife an immensely enriching experience, and I hope that this account of what we have done will encourage other people to use their charitable giving to try and make the world a better place.”

Such innovation funds, from governments or philanthropists like the Sainsburys, create precious space and resources to step outside of legacy systems, fixed expenditure and thought. They create opportunities to combine knowledge, creativity and goodwill in new ways. Let’s use them equally wisely to come up with new solutions to old problems. And thank you David and Susie for what you’ve done – and let’s hope you are indeed an inspiration to others.