Newsmaker: Dawn Austwick, director, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation

Public sector refugee: Dawn Austwick wants to let the foundation develop organically - and react to its market.

Dawn Austwick, the new head of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, treads lightly. Just three months into her job, the former manager of a radical fringe theatre is loath to rattle the low-key world of trusts and foundations.

"I wouldn't expect a revolution here," she says. Austwick replaces Margaret Hyde, who, after 11 years in the role, retired as chief executive in September.

She insists she was not brought in with any agenda.

"I'm still learning and listening," she says. "The foundation has grown organically over the years, and I think it will continue to do that. I don't want my tenure to be about radical change."

Although Austwick is reluctant to volunteer her views, you only need to probe her slightly for her outlook to become clear - she does not want the foundation, which runs both strategic and demand-led programmes, to run the risk of dictating policy, for example.

"There's currently debate about how far a foundation should go down the road of what I'd call programming and how far we should be reacting to the market," she says. "I wouldn't go too far down the programming route. We should never forget that, as foundations, we're here to serve."

Similarly, she worries that public sector contracts will change the dynamics of the voluntary sector. "The pattern that emerged in arts organisations saw their focus move from their missions to the pursuit of money," she explains. "This threatened to drown out their purpose. We live or die by being independent and open. If we become too prescriptive, we lose that."

Esmee Fairbairn is one of the UK's largest independent grant-making foundations.

When Austwick took over, it was in robust health and in little need of transformation - but her experience of managing cash-strapped arts organisations such as the British Museum has given her a creativity she is keen to exercise.

"You always learn to think laterally," says the English and drama graduate.

"Arts organisations are unbelievably ambitious, always looking for the creative solution."

The foundation has a healthy £29m to play with this year, which it will spread across its core areas of arts and heritage, education, environment and social change. It was this varied funding portfolio that drew her to the post.

"I thought it was rather eclectic," she says. "The areas the foundation funds are all types of work in which I'm interested."

Esmee Fairbairn has traditionally given grants to embryonic or marginal causes, and has recently funded a project to encourage alternative forms of punishment to prison. Another innovative beneficiary of its funds is a scheme to bring more curators from black and minority ethnic groups to London's national museums and galleries.

The freedom to choose is a refreshing change for Austwick after the shackles of Government-led funding. "A wonderful thing about foundations is that you don't have to go down a targets-based route," she says. "You can use your own judgement.

"I speak as a refugee from the public sector, where a simplistic approach to demonstrating value has led to a fear of risk and failure, and too great a focus on narrow measures of performance. You either adopt this approach or you use judgement."

Austwick sees the foundation's role as being "semi-detached" when using this judgement. "We always have to take note of what's happening in the world around us," she says. "We need to have delicate antennae that can scan across the landscapes that help us with wisdom in grant giving."

Can Austwick be open about what's next for Esmee? "In six to 12 months' time, we can," she says.

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