Year in review: An interview with Matthew Bowcock, Beacon co-founder

Matthew Bowcock and his wife Helen established the Hazelhurst Trust in 2000 to provide grants and other forms of social finance to local charities and social enterprises.

They started out by focusing on projects in and around Surrey, where they live, but their philanthropic activities have extended to Matthew’s hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, as well as villages in Zambia.

Following a successful career in technology, Matthew became engaged in charity work. He has been extensively involved in the philanthropic sector for more than fifteen years, including a seven year tenure as chair of UK Community Foundations and a four-year term as a National Council Member of Arts Council England.

Matthew Bowcock is currently engaged in a national campaign to promote greater philanthropic giving throughout the UK, the Beacon Collaborative.

We asked him to reflect on his giving activities this year, his attitudes to and experiences of philanthropy, and his advice for those looking to foray into philanthropic giving.

 

matthew bowcock interview

 


Beacon Collaborative: Matthew, hello. 2020 has been, to put it mildly, a strange year for us all. Thinking back to January, what were your plans for philanthropic giving this year?

Matthew Bowcock: I think the strategy at the start of the year was to continue to engage primarily with the charities we’ve supported in the past. My wife and I both spend the majority of our time working in trustee or semi-executive capacities for a range of organisations, so our philanthropic giving tends to align with those charities.

Our philosophy has always been “you only have a tiny amount relative to the scale of the problems, so use it to achieve the maximum possible leverage”. One of the things you learn pretty early on in philanthropy is that you can choose either to have a very big impact on a very small number of lives, or a very small impact on a very big number of lives.

 

So, which side do you fall on? Do you try to make big changes for few people, or incremental changes for the masses?

We tend to pursue small impacts on a lot of lives, because that’s how you achieve the greatest possible leverage. For example, we are supporting the work of Beacon because it could lead to an additional £2 billion a year of philanthropic giving in the UK. That’s leverage! 

 

The UK went into nationwide lockdown in late March. Did this make you reassess your giving for the year? Did you deviate from your plan?

Well, because I was struck down with COVID at the very beginning of lockdown, about three weeks of my life totally disappeared. When everyone was going into panic mode, I was flat on my back with illness.

Once I returned to health, we had time to think about what we wanted to do in response because we hadn’t been able to engage in some of the instant, reactive giving that we otherwise might have.

One of the things that emerged over COVID was that funders supported people they trusted. We felt it important to continue supporting our existing charities because we knew them so well, but we did bring forward some of this giving and made it unrestricted. We just said “Take the donation, and do what you need to do with it – we believe in you.

As we didn’t do much giving at the start of the pandemic we have been able to give thought to the recovery and resilience stages. We want to make sure that our support helps the charities to stand up to the long-term challenges caused by COVID and future crises.

 

One could argue that ‘uncertainty’ is the most fitting word to describe 2020. It has reduced the ability of both businesses and charities to look beyond their immediate situations. Has this uncertainty led you to become more cautious in your giving activities throughout 2020?

There’s no doubt that it has. Even if we’d been more active in the first couple of weeks, I don’t think we’d have given money to any charities that we didn’t know personally. There was no time to carry out evaluations of new charities, so we had to focus on those we trusted and had relationships with already.

One of the charities which we made a grant to is the YMCA of North Staffordshire in Stoke-on-Trent. They do amazing work supporting disadvantaged young people. We just said to them “Look, I don’t care how you use it but here’s a grant for COVID relief. Tell me afterwards what you’ve done with it.” We simply couldn’t do that to a charity where we didn’t know and trust the individuals.

I think charities which had already invested a lot of time developing good donor relationships over the years saw that a lot of their donors were willing to step up. Those which struggled were the ones scrabbling around trying to build new relationships over Zoom.

 

Throughout COVID, did you seek advice from any friends engaged in philanthropy?

I’m very fortunate to be a part of a support network with fellow philanthropists, formed out of a course I did 13 years ago, called The Philanthropy Workshop, about maximising the impact of strategic philanthropy. I didn’t actively seek out advice, but conversations were shared about how we were all responding to COVID, and so there was a degree of knowledge-sharing going on.

One of the things I think we all learnt was that you need to have enough flexibility in your strategy to account for the unexpected. When you learn about philanthropy, you’re taught to think strategically about what you’re trying to achieve and in some ways not to respond spontaneously to appeals, but, in this case, it was fortunate that so many donors were able to readjust their giving plans so quickly.

 

You have founded tech companies in Australia, the US and the UK, so you’re well acquainted with the benefits of modern tech. A lot of charities are increasingly utilising technology to develop more prominent profiles and to grow their online presence. Do you find it easier to build relationships with tech-savvy charities?

There was an interesting comment made by Angus Thirlwell (CEO, Hotel Chocolat) saying that all the changes his sector was going to see over the next few years have been accelerated by COVID into six months. He was talking about retail, but it’s easy to transpose this onto the charity sector.

Those organisations which saw the writing on the wall and embraced technology have certainly been best placed to change their modus operandi during this period. Consequently, they’re the organisations that donors have really wanted to back.

Watts Gallery, a charity I’m involved in, found that by harnessing technology to produce and upload material about their collection, it was suddenly connecting with new audiences up and down the country. On top of that, by adapting to sell tickets online, the number of people adding GiftAid to their ticket purchase increased from 31% to 70%.

When charities can adapt like this, donors feel more assured that their money will be used well.

 

2020 has seen Schroders and Big Society Capital launch the first ever Social Impact Trust. Its aim is to bring impact investing to ordinary investors. Looking to the future, will initiatives like this will become a prominent part of your philanthropy?

Absolutely yes. Impact investing is going to become much more a part of what we do. This won’t necessarily affect the amount of ‘classic’ philanthropic giving we do though, because the money we would put into impact investing is money we would normally give to a portfolio manager to invest in traditional equities.

I think impact investing is a great movement. When you make a philanthropic donation, you accept that you are waving goodbye to the money in exchange for social impact. Whereas when you are investing working capital, you can afford to put in ten times the amount because you know the capital is still intact. Again, it is about how to achieve leverage with modest amounts of money.

 

This year, you have given to charities in Surrey, Stoke and Zambia, covering causes ranging from education to search and rescue. What’s the common theme?

One of the funny things about a lot of philanthropy is that you hope you are being really strategic, but then you step back and realise that there isn’t a lot of consistency. My wife has this great saying: “Applying coherence retrospectively!”

Probably the common denominator between our giving is that we’re trying to support community-led, strategic change. With hindsight, we have been able to see that our work in Zambia, helping small villages to have agency over their own developments, clearly had a large overlap with our community work in Surrey and Stoke. But it’s a comparison we didn’t really think about beforehand.

I’m a huge believer in something called ‘Asset Based Community Development’, which dictates that the best approach to development is to talk about opportunity, rather than using indices of deprivation as a starting point. It’s about the glass being half full, not half empty.

A long time ago I settled on a phrase that still applies to a lot of what we have been trying to do with the Hazelhurst Trust: “People know the solutions to their own problems – it’s accessing the solution that’s the problem.”

 

Have you given money to projects on a whim this year, or did you stick entirely to strategic giving?

Most of our giving tries to create the maximum amount of leverage and stay connected with charities’ activities by being involved and often being a trustee.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of your giving being completely responsive. It could be the next door neighbour’s son doing a sponsored swim, or a running a marathon

We recently supported a project where our local National Trust is looking to re-wild an entire valley. They were slightly short of their target so we filled the gap. How does that tie into our philanthropic plan? Well, it doesn’t. But it was a great local initiative which needed support and we wanted to see it succeed. It’s not absolutely essential that something fits into our strategy.

 

You have been giving for a long time now. Has philanthropy become a part of your identity?

Oh definitely. Although you have to be careful in the UK, because we’re a culture which hates virtue signalling. So, it shouldn’t be about saying “Look how generous I am”; it should be about doing your part to put a brick in the wall of our society while you have the chance to do so.

I’d much rather people focussed on the why and the what, when it comes to giving, not the who. If the discourse changed to reflect that, we’d be able to engage a lot more wealth holders in giving activity. The conversations around people’s giving habits should not descend into curiosity about the lifestyles of the wealthy because this is what puts a lot of people off getting involved in the first place.

 

Finally, if you had one sentence to convince someone to get involved in philanthropy in 2020, what would you say to them?

It’s the most rewarding and interesting and satisfying way you can spend your life.