Interview: Dame Stephanie Shirley, philanthropist

The business of giving: philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley says charities should target major donors carefully and professionally.

credit: David Devins
credit: David Devins

Dame Stephanie Shirley has an impressive CV. The 74-year-old entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist, who arrived in the UK as a refugee in 1939, has founded a FTSE 250-listed business technology firm, been appointed first woman president of the British Computer Society, sat on the boards of various government IT bodies and been awarded an OBE and a DBE for her services to industry.

Shirley has made similar waves in the voluntary sector. She set up the Shirley Foundation, which supports autism charities and IT in the voluntary sector, and Autism Speaks, part of a global campaign to establish the causes of the condition. In the past seven years, she has awarded more than £50m to charitable causes through the foundation. But she is not sentimental about her contribution.

"Philanthropy gives me a lifestyle that suits me," she says. "I am a workaholic. It's not altruistic in any way - I get just as much as I give. I give money, skill and time and I like to keep that balance."

Shirley believes other philanthropists are increasingly taking this businesslike approach and moving away from "inefficient" one-off gifts in favour of a more strategic view. "The Economist said that philanthropy is going to be a mega-trend of the 21st century - and I agree," she says.

"Life is changing, boundaries are less rigid. Charities are forming joint commercial and social partnerships. Maybe philanthropists are aiming to obviate the need for charitable giving."

As a philanthropist and charity founder and fundraiser, Shirley says she understands the difficulties faced by charities in the current economic climate. She says now more than ever it is important for charities to target major donors carefully and professionally.

"You have to find the person first and establish that they really are a potential donor," she says. "Writing is a waste of time because it is so impersonal. It's a question of building a personal relationship with them."

She says the small charities that don't usually approach major donors are often the ones that inspire philanthropists. "Many don't give to big campaigns because we can't see where the money goes," she says. "We want to support local organisations because we are looking for satisfaction. We want to make a difference."

Shirley says charities should keep abreast of changes in society and target major donors in the right way. The key, she says, is the UK's 16 million 40 to 60-year-old baby boomers, who own 80 per cent of the nation's wealth. Shirley believes this group is most likely to produce the philanthropists of tomorrow.

"Philanthropists generally aren't young," she says. "We are all living longer these days, so maybe we are maturing later. People need to grow up and get established before they think about giving time or money."

Shirley says the UK could learn a lot from the US, where charitable giving has been doing better for many years. "Charity permeates their whole society, whether it's raising money or coping with vulnerable children," she says. "Here people talk more about their needs and rights.We are lucky to have a welfare state that allows us to do that, but it has made us a bit lazy."

- See Editorial, p10, and Feature, p14

2004: Founder, Autism Speaks UK
2000: Awarded DBE for services to the IT industry
2000: Founder, Autism Cymru
1999: First non-executive director, John Lewis Partnership
1996: Founder, the Shirley Foundation
1994: Founder, Kingwood Trust for young adults with autism
1989: First woman president of the British Computer Society
1962: Founder, FI Group, developing working practices for women

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