Interview: Dawn Austwick

The chief executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation tells Andy Hillier why she is leaving the charity for the top job at the Big Lottery Fund

Dawn Austwick
Dawn Austwick

In October, Dawn Austwick will assume one of the biggest and most important roles in the charity sector when she takes over as chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, overseeing the distribution of about £700m to good causes each year.

It's not a job for the faint-hearted. The BLF has faced criticism for funding projects closely aligned with the government and for allowing the state to borrow £425m to help pay for the London Olympics. That sum won't be repaid until the 2020s.

Austwick is currently chief executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and is reluctant to talk about her next job. But she reveals that she was asked to apply and wasn't planning to leave the foundation, where she has been for eight years.

"Whenever a head hunter approached me in the past, I'd always said that I had the perfect job," she says. But she was tempted by the BLF role because of the "scale and nature of the work and its importance".

She won't be drawn on what she sees as the main challenges, nor will she disclose her views on the much-debated additionality principle - that lottery funding should only be used to fund activities that are separate and distinct from those that should be provided by the state. "I'm not going to answer that," she says. "We should talk about that when I've taken up the role."

A couple of days before this interview, Sir Stephen Bubb, the chief executive of Acevo, wrote in a blog that the BLF should be a foundation and was spared the 'bonfire of the quangos' because it has "oodles of money politicians can 'earmark' for their hobby horses ... but then again, it's 'independent', isn't it?" Austwick laughs, saying "Good old Stephen", but declines to comment further.

But she is willing to discuss whether she has the right track record to lead the BLF, given the absence on her CV of a role at a front-line charity. "I've not been at the helm of front-line charity, but I was the deputy director of the British Museum and a project director of Tate Modern," she says. "My second job at Half Moon Theatre in east London taught me a lot about working in small organisations. Anyone who looks at Esmee's portfolio will see that we work closely with lots of small and medium-sized charities."

Her time in charge at Esmée has coincided with a period of economic boom followed by a protracted downturn. The foundation, which mainly supports arts, education, environment and social change organisations, has also become a pioneer in social investment: it made its first social investment in 2008, when few in the charity sector had even heard of the term.

The day after we speak, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, tells a conference in London that other countries are now looking at social investment with huge interest, adding that it could "transform our societies" by tackling problems such as drug abuse, youth unemployment, homelessness and even global poverty.

Austwick's assessment of its potential is more restrained: "The danger is that social investment becomes over-fashionable and expectations become too high," she says. "It is a strand of funding that's sustainable, but it's only a strand. I'm not of the school of thought that says it will replace grant funding, because the numbers don't add up."

Her biggest achievement at Esmée has been creating an organisation that is seamless from investment to social investment to grants, she says. "We have invested in responsive grant-making rather than programmatic grant-making, which has been against the tide."

As a result of government cuts, Esmée now receives applications, for example, from local museums that previously would have been funded by local councils, but she is not unduly concerned about charitable foundations being asked to fill the gap. "Foundations will always say that they are not a substitute for government funding, but inevitably there is a grey area," she says. "Where the public funding infrastructure has changed, the charitable sector has to find a way of adapting."

During her time at Esmée, it has also been willing to go against the grain of many funders - including the BLF - in the area of impact measurement. As funding has become scarce, charities have come under increasing pressure to demonstrate their impact in hard numerical terms to funders, but Austwick says that Esmee has taken a different approach.

"I suppose we are unfashionable in that debate," she says. "We're more interested in people telling stories about how their lives have changed as a result of what we've done. The difficulty with a lot of the impact debate is that it finds it hard to deal with narrative."

Austwick CV:

2005: Chief executive, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
2002: Deputy director, British Museum
2000: Freelance consultant
1995: Project director, Tate Modern
1994: Consultant, Office for Public Management
1986: Principal consultant, KPMG
1985: Theatre manager, Half Moon Theatre
1983: Projects coordinator, Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts

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