We speak to Satish Selvanathan about his environmental philanthropy.
From Girls’ Education to Climate Funding;
Sophie Marple’s philanthropy journey.
Gower Street was set up in 2007 by Sophie and Nick Marple as a vehicle for their charitable giving. They have funded organisations throughout sub-saharan Africa, as well as domestic charities. Now, the fund has developed a strong focus on funding small organisations working to make transformational change in the climate crisis, something they maintain alongside a longstanding commitment to girls’ education in Ghana. We spoke to Sophie to learn more about her journey in philanthropy…
How did you get involved in giving?
About 14 or 15 years ago, my husband and I were both working full time and giving to charity in quite a sporadic way. He had just spent time in Ghana and really wanted to support education in sub-saharan Africa; my giving was closer to home, looking at issues like homelessness in London. We got to a point where we were sorting out wills and were advised that it might be an idea to structure our philanthropy by setting up a foundation. On the back of this advice, we started Gower Street – albeit under a different name initially.
How did your giving change after setting up a foundation?
In the early years, we were very much a ‘kitchen-table’ type foundation. The strategy went as far as having our trustees around for dinner and talking about where we might want to give. Once our youngest child reached about four, we began to re-engage with philanthropy more and ask ourselves what we were trying to achieve through Gower Street.
A year after we set up the trust, we went to see New Philanthropy Capital and they helped us to think about what causes and markets were most important to us. This resulted in us funding in education across sub-saharan Africa and closer to home in Islington. We continued this for some time until we realised that, because we were working in a number of different countries, we didn’t know the markets well enough. As a result, we began to keep our African focus purely on Ghana and exclusively on education for girls. We started to think strategically about what we could achieve within Ghanaian education.
This journey of reassessing Gower Street led us to talk to Jake Hayman from Ten Years’ Time. Working with him transformed the way we thought about funding. It moved us from funding big organisations to thinking about transformatory, systems-change work with smaller, on-the-ground players. Things became far more streamlined and we developed a stronger understanding of what we were trying to achieve and how we could get there.
What made you become interested in climate philanthropy?
While we were reviewing our strategy with Jake, he happened to be working with another family who wanted to focus on the climate. He ended up passing on some reading material to me. I was shocked to find out how extreme the climate situation had become. It wasn’t that we weren’t aware of the climate crisis before, but I would always say “we’re not climate funders.” I felt I could box it away, like we would with unsolicited grant applications.
This all happened in around 2018, when – coincidentally – lots of climate issues collided at once. You had Extinction Rebellion coming onto the scene, the IPCC report released, and pivotal climate books and op-eds being written. It began to feel very personal for me. I could foresee the impact of the climate crisis on the futures of my two daughters and of the girls we work with in Ghana.
In my mind, I had sectioned ‘climate’ off – I’d put it in its own box. Then the walls started coming down around it.
So, what climate activities are you engaged in?
We fund a number of different organisations across the sector from media, to social movements, land use and trade. A good example of a recent organisation we’ve funded is called On Road Media who I think are brilliant. They work with broadcasters to reframe the climate debate, so that it’s not done in a way that feels hopeless.
Among other activities, the On Road Media team works with the Earthshot Prize. Earthshot were initially going to go down a very scientific route with how they framed the prize, but On Road found that the biggest driver to someone funding climate philanthropy is responsibility for the next generation. This revelation led the Earthshot ambassadors to focus more on their own children and the next generation when discussing the climate crisis with the media. With an issue as time-sensitive as the climate, we have to go out with messages we know will connect with people.
Beyond this, I have quite a ‘hands-on’ involvement with Impatience Earth. This is a service offering pro-bono guidance to people looking to get involved in climate philanthropy. My role here is to help in any way they need! I talk to other funders about their giving journeys, I speak at events, I go to workshops. For me, because I work in a small trust and the climate crisis can feel so overwhelming, it can be easy to question whether you’re really making a difference. But working with Impatience Earth amplifies the impact of our other climate work. I get the opportunity to draw on my own experience and knowledge as a donor to help leverage more money into the sector.
Is there a strategy behind your funding?
We tend to go with whatever the organisation we’re supporting needs, to be honest. Our preference is usually multi-year core funding. I think that’s really helpful for charities. The benefit is that you free up the organisation’s time. All the time they’d spend going out and seeking more funding every year is time you’re giving back to them to do the work they set out to do in the first place.
Ultimately, charities are trying to change the world and we’re trying to fund that change in the best way we can. I believe very strongly that charities are the experts in their own field and that we’re simply very fortunate to have the money to fund what they do.
What is the biggest challenge of being a funder?
There are a few, but something I’m acutely aware of is the power imbalance there can sometimes be between a funder and an organisation. Anybody who has given money will appreciate that people sometimes think you have more knowledge about the subject area than you actually do. I have been invited to meetings where I get imposter syndrome – “I shouldn’t be in this meeting; I don’t know enough to be here.”
I think it’s always worth reminding yourself that the reason you’re there is because you can fund the work, not because you know more about the issue than the people in the room. Your role in those meetings is to learn, but reminding yourself of that can be a challenge at times.
What advice do you have for those looking to get involved in philanthropy?
See your philanthropic money as risk capital. That’s what it’s there for. For me, if you’re not taking risks with philanthropic funding, then I’m wondering why you’re involved in philanthropy. With climate philanthropy especially, taking risks is the only way we’re ever going to make real progress.
I’d also recommend a fantastic book to anyone looking to get involved in giving. The book is It Aint What You Give, It’s The Way You Give It by Caroline Fiennes. I found it transformatory in the way that we fund at Gower Street. It’s all about thinking of how you can be of most use to the people you are funding. Learn from them, be open, be flexible, and see them as the expert.
And if you’re interested in funding the climate, talk to us at Impatience Earth. We provide completely free advice and guidance, so you have nothing to lose by getting in touch. It’s a free network; it’s free advice; what more could you want?
You can follow the work of On Road Media and Impatience Earth here: