Jamie Hambro, chair of the Henry Smith Charity

Grant-making is no longer Dickensian, he tells Paul Jump

Jamie Hambro, chair of governers, the Henry Smith Charity
Jamie Hambro, chair of governers, the Henry Smith Charity

When Jamie Hambro first became a trustee of the venerable grant-making Henry Smith Charity many years ago, he admits the whole set-up was rather Dickensian.

"It was run out of the rather bleak offices of a firm of lawyers," he says. "My father was a trustee and the board was made up of quite traditional people; I was told to sit in the corner and not say anything."

But times have changed. The descendants of the charity's founder, 17th century salt magnate Henry Smith, remain among its beneficiaries, but its distribution last year of £25m was overseen by a workforce of 15 and an 18-strong trustee body made up of financiers, grant-makers and experts in areas such as drugs, alcohol and domestic violence.

Since becoming chair of the Henry Smith Charity two years ago, Hambro has spearheaded a drive to better monitor the impact of its grants. "It is difficult, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try," he says.

Hambro chairs the family investment management firm JO Hambro, but admits he did not see the financial meltdown coming. "The value of our investments went down £100m last year, which was quite painful to watch," he confesses. But he says the charity takes a long-term view of investment, cutting its grant-making by 10 per cent this year so that it can offer the same level of grants next year, when public sector spending cuts are expected to begin in earnest.

The charity also tries to maximise the impact of its grants, according to Hambro, by funding "boring" things such as management salaries and addressing harder-to-sell causes such as autism, domestic violence and people trafficking.

Trustees research and decide on a number of themes for each year's grant-making round - grants usually last three years - and applicants are visited by the charity's network of local volunteers before a final decision is taken at board level.

Hambro is keen to abide by Charity Commission good practice on both responsive and responsible grant-making and open trustee recruitment. "Recruitment has previously been done by word of mouth and recommendation, but we'll be advertising or using a headhunter as well in the future," he says.

He admits trustees are expected to make a significant time contribution, but says that is the nature of a grant-making charity. He goes from his office in London's St James' to visit the charity's offices in the City at least once a fortnight, talks to key people twice a week and engages in a lot of email traffic.

Despite the time involved, Hambro says he gets a kick from helping charities that might otherwise struggle. "If a big grant-maker like us becomes an early contributor to a new charity, that seal of approval makes it a lot easier for them to raise money elsewhere," he says. "That is one of the ways we can make a huge difference."

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