Big Giver: Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Dawn Austwick, the organisation's chief executive, talks to Jenna Pudelek about why the foundation is focusing on niche funding

Dawn Austwick
Dawn Austwick

Despite the economic downturn, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation - one of the UK's largest independent grant-makers - has not seen a big increase in applications.

Dawn Austwick, the organisation's chief executive, wants to make it clear that the foundation is "very much open for business", with £35m to give out in funding this year.

"Like a number of foundations, we've been surprised that applications have not increased more," she says. "People should not be afraid to apply."

The foundation gives money to charitable causes that work in the arts, education, environment or social change sectors. Last year it gave a total of about £40m.

Austwick says the foundation is an active social investor, seeking both social and financial returns through its finance fund.

As a grant-maker, she says, the foundation mainly works with mid-scale organisations, particularly ones that are niche, specialist or unique. Funding also goes to small, grass-roots organisations with great ideas working on local issues, she says.

Austwick is keen to point out that the foundation does provide core funding for costs such as salaries and overheads.

Since the downturn, she says, the foundation has been trying to adapt to the needs of charities. It is keen to push funding into parts of the country that are hardest hit economically.

The foundation provides small grants of less than £15,000 and larger ones of between £300,000 and £1m.

Recent examples include £120,000 to Southall Black Sisters over 36 months for a domestic violence and harmful traditional practices project, and £85,506 over 36 months to the conservation charity Landlife's work on urban meadows.

The foundation was launched in 1961 by Ian Fairbairn with the majority of his holding in the investment company M&G.

"People are at the heart of what we do, which is why we can seem very eclectic in what we fund. It is why we fund things that are slightly unusual. I think that can be traced back to Fairbairn's attitude to life."

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