NEWSMAKER: The venture philanthropist - Irvine Laidlaw, Founder, The Laidlaw Youth Project

Maria Clegg

At a conference last month, Scottish business tycoon Irvine Laidlaw unveiled his plan to give away £1m of his own money to help the most disadvantaged young people in Scotland. He told an audience of some 260 voluntary sector and local authority representatives, police officers and other interested parties that if he's satisfied the money can be spent well, he will sell his conference-organising company (the Institute of International Research, valued at £720m) and give a further £10m-£20m to children and young people's charities every year.

Unsurprisingly, the Banffshire businessman, reputedly the richest man in Scotland, has been making the headlines ever since. When the Laidlaw Youth Project is in place, he will be engaging with philanthropy on a scale not seen since his compatriot Andrew Carnegie gave away his steel fortune in the 1900s, declaring: "The man who dies rich dies in disgrace."

The scale of giving will eclipse the level of funding currently provided by Scotland's largest benefactor, the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland, which gave away £9m this year, and The Hunter Foundation, which has distributed around £12m since it was set up in 1998. It's a quantum leap from his previous hobby of almost single-handedly bankrolling the Scottish Tories.

Laidlaw plans to support the charities and organisations that do most to bring about change in young people's lives through informed, targeted giving. He has set himself the challenge of learning all about the realities of life for Scotland's most disadvantaged communities, and quotes from a Scottish Executive report that one-third of Scotland's children live in marginal poverty.

"If you come from that background, it is very difficult to move away from it without some kind of support. At the launch conference, we had three young people on the platform from very disadvantaged backgrounds. With help from the Prince's Trust and St Columba, they had broken out of the cycle of poverty and deprivation - it was their contact with charities that had made all the difference."

From 5 January, the Laidlaw Youth Project will consider applications for funding. Laidlaw is keen to support capacity-building projects that will help relevant organisations - public, private or voluntary - to work together more effectively. He isn't suggesting that charities are wasting money, but he does believe more could be achieved with a more businesslike outlook.

"Charities need funding but they need vision too. To give an example, a youth centre may be doing a fantastic job, but it's not in the voluntary sector's thinking to say, 'How can we build three or four centres like this one?' I think I can contribute a vision of scale as well as funding."

He also hopes to encourage charities to become more effective by working together wherever possible. "It's one of the voluntary sector's strengths, as well as a weakness, that it's very focused." He is so keen to foster a culture of co-operation that one of the funding criteria he has set is resource-sharing between two or more organisations. Laidlaw accepts there aren't many existing projects with that kind of collaboration, and so almost by definition, most projects are likely to be new ones. "Though organisations can apply for grants of up to £75,000, the average award will be around £25,000, so we'll be able to help maybe 50 projects next year."

Existing charities working with young people in Scotland say their hands are tied because there is no statutory obligation for local authorities to provide youth services, and with no money to pay full-time staff, a massive 80 per cent of youth work is done by volunteers. Recent legislation has strained relations between the Government and the voluntary sector still further.

When First Minister Jack McConnell announced plans this year to extend anti-social behaviour orders and the use of electronic tagging to the under-16s, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland baulked at the proposals, saying that they "stigmatised" youth.

In this climate, the Scottish Executive top-up pledge of £250,000 to the Laidlaw Youth Project has been met with some cynicism by the voluntary sector, but Laidlaw says the Executive has never tried to control how the money is spent. "I wouldn't have accepted the money if it had come with strings."

He believes passionately that politicians have a moral obligation to do the simple things first. On a visit to Glasgow's Easterhouse estate, he was appalled at the largely derelict tenement blocks - "I absolutely cannot understand why they are still there."

But Laidlaw is prepared to listen as well as talk, and now he wants charities to take the initiative. "This is very much a test project to see if the concept of funding multiple charities works," he admits. "We have already had a few emails from charities and I've been talking to the Lloyds TSB Foundation and the Hunter Foundation, as well as people in the voluntary sector and the Scottish Executive, working out how we can make the application process easier."

The measure of success will be whether this funding strategy helps more young people to escape the poverty trap, and this is something he will be paying close attention to. "I like to see value for money," he says.

"We will be trying to judge whether they're using the money sensibly, but measuring outcomes is difficult, and mustn't be a burden."


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