PHILANTHROPY: The Story of a Venture Philanthropist


Last year, earthquakes ravaged whole communities in El Salvador. Millionaire businessman Graham Hellier wanted to help. Kirsten Downer finds out how he teamed up with Plan International to build an entire new village.

In February 2001, earthquakes in El Salvador killed nearly 850 people and made tens of thousands homeless. Now several thousand people have been given the opportunity to start again through a brand new community of 450 houses 20 miles from the capital San Salvador. Each family wanting a house in "Little England

builds it themselves, under the guidance of a trained foreman. The houses are earthquake-proof and worth far more than most families could afford normally. Located on a 45-hectare site of a former coffee plantation, 85 houses are already occupied, with 50 more nearly completed. A health centre, school, football field and two basketball courts are planned. Eventually it is hoped that 5,000 people will come and live here.

Little England would not exist were it not for venture philanthropist Graham Hellier. Two years ago, Hellier threw down a challenge to the international development community. He had a million pounds to give away, but there were strings attached. "I didn't want to just write out a cheque, I wanted to make sure that it had a social impact,

he says.

Hellier wanted his money spent on a project with tangible results. He wanted to be directly involved in order to help ensure its success. And he wanted results within three months.

Hellier was applying the same hard-nosed, results-driven attitude which had made him a millionaire at 34. His offer concentrated the minds of staff at development agency Plan International into devising a project more ambitious in scope than anything it had tried before.

Gabriela Bucher, programme funding officer at Plan, along with chief executive Marie Staunton and Han Dijsselbloem, country director at Plan in El Salvador, came up with the idea for the project between them. They were already trying to find ways of rehousing people in El Salvador and thought this project could speed up the process. Hellier's money, £600,000 topped up with £400,000 from Gift Aid, would pay for all Little England's materials and labour costs.

Plan has been concentrating part of its fundraising on so-called high-net worth individuals - those donating £6,000 or over - for more than two years. According to Hellier, the charity is now expert at managing expectations. In fact, Bucher describes her job as "match-making

- matching the specific interests of donors to the particular needs of the field.

The Little England project, she believes, shows that venture philanthropy can work for big charities as well as small. "Enabling a donor to have a meaningful input to a particular project is a way of harnessing venture philanthropy for large organisations,

she says.

But this particular match involved a considerable amount of work. The original meeting established Hellier's interests and his desire to fund basic needs such as water, shelter and sanitation. Next, Plan staff had to brainstorm to find a project which was relevant but which would also show tangible results within a designated time frame. Then they had to put a 10-page proposal together, account for exactly how Hellier's cash would be spent and demonstrate how the project would be rigorously monitored.

Hellier was given the opportunity to meet with Plan field managers and put questions to them.

A formal agreement committed Hellier to paying up and the charity to implementing the project. He had made clear that he wanted hands-on involvement, so it was agreed that he would go to El Salvador for three months to record the building of the village, and report as a volunteer to Dijsselbloem.

Except for a handful of Plan staff, Hellier's donation was kept secret from those on the ground.

Plan and Hellier originally believed that his most useful contribution to the project would be on his return to the UK, when he would help connect the charity to further wealthy donors. But as it turned out, Hellier was much more effective on the ground than anyone ever imagined.

"He was dynamic and had a sense of urgency,

says Bucher. "And he transmitted this 'can do' attitude to the Plan staff and the community."

"I'm incredibly impatient,

says Hellier. "And I think impatience is a virtue. I knew I was only there for three months, and I wanted to be active while I was out there."

Country director Dijsselbloem was involved in numerous other projects around the country and could not give Little England his undivided attention.

In what Hellier describes as an evolutionary transition, he began to take on day-to day control of the Little England project.

Bucher says the development in Hellier's role came about as a response to events and could not have happened if he and Dijsselbloem had not trusted each other. "It was great when the country director found that he could involve Graham more,

says Bucher. "But we wanted that to be his and Graham's decision - we couldn't impose it."

Much hinged on Dijsselbloem's sanguinity. He admits he was nervous at the beginning about how it would all work out, but he is now a passionate exponent of this type of philanthropic model.

"We were perfectly aware of the enormous challenges, given the magnitude of the project, but everyone was also quite aware that there would be tremendous learning opportunities,

he says.

"We were in uncharted territory a few times in terms of his participation in project decisions. But we did OK."

However, Hellier's presence did create a few problems. A Little England department had to be set up with four staff and Hellier and his girlfriend's safety needed to be protected in a country notorious for kidnappings.

There were also tremendous risks for Plan, as Hellier recognises. "Projects go wrong as well as right,

he says. "If things had gone wrong, they would have been saddled with a spectator. It was a gutsy judgment call that Plan made."

The idea of a donor meddling in a project would put off many charities, and according to Hellier, many charities were wary. "They didn't know what to do with me and it's understandable,

he says. "I'd be very nervous if someone came and wanted to have a look at every aspect of the workings of some of my companies."

But what about the nightmare scenario of a donor attempting to take over a project? According to Bucher, this would always have been very unlikely because donors with the wrong kind of attitude tend to drop out early on. It was made clear to Hellier that he would be reporting to Dijsselbloem as a volunteer, and it was implicitly understood that the project management was Plan's responsibility.

But much of the project's success depended on both parties trusting each other. Sticking too rigidly to Hellier's original role would have robbed Plan of his skills, but deviating from it required the courage to take a risk. And the impetus for this came from a crisis which occurred two weeks after Hellier's arrival.

The results came back from a topographical survey Plan had commissioned which showed that the area earmarked for the development was vulnerable to future earthquakes. The El Salvadorian government promised Plan another patch of land, but bureaucracy meant that weeks slipped away with no deal in sight.

Hellier became increasingly frustrated. And although he says he was guided by Dijsselbloem at all times, he began to kick up a stink with the British Embassy and El Salvadorian government, bombarding the country's finance minister with emails. "Plan has to work out there long term so it has to work politically,

says Hellier. "But I could afford to tread on people's toes, to be abrupt and a pain in the neck."

He was determined to get the land deal through and so made his feelings known to the finance minister. Hellier threatened to leave the country and take his money somewhere else. This did the trick. Plan got the land, and building started.

Apart from the concrete outcomes of the project, everyone involved seems energised by the experience.

Hellier believes it is the best thing he's ever done. "I got more from the project than I could ever have dreamed,

he says. "One day I'll be on my death bed and there'll be a village called Little England, which wouldn't have existed if I hadn't contacted Plan."


Hellier sold his latest venture, a recruitment company, for millions of pounds.

He wanted to do something philanthropic with the cash, rather than simply use it to make yet more money or buy cars or gadgets.

A keen traveller, Hellier had witnessed scenes of appalling poverty in Africa and India. He had become haunted by these images of hardship and realised he could make a lasting difference.

Hellier contacted 10 development and disaster-relief charities by letter, telling them he had approximately £1 million to spend on a project which would have tangible results within three months and which offered him some involvement.

Only two agencies, Oxfam and Plan International, rose to the challenge.

Although Oxfam's bid was extremely good, Hellier went for Plan's proposal because the project was ready to start. He also liked the way Plan's staff responded to his offer with excitement, courage and creativity. Importantly they managed to make him feel emotionally involved with the needs of the people in El Salvador, through showing him photographs and sharing their anecdotes.

Plan was also able to demonstrate exactly how much the materials and labour would cost and provide spreadsheets detailing how his money would be spent and regularly monitored.

In addition, evidence was provided of how he could make a lasting difference through a totally new initiative.

Hellier was also attracted by the fact that the families built the houses themselves and that the scheme would be a community effort.

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