Sophie Marple talks to us about taking risks with philanthropic capital.
Splitting Your Focus: funding globally and locally.
Samuel Lawson Johnston is a real-estate investor committed to regenerating city centres through the strategic renovation of properties around the UK. He also dedicates time to philanthropy, supporting two causes close to his heart – one locally in East London, and one globally. We speak to Sam to learn more about his charitable activity…
What is your professional background? How did you get into giving?
I grew up in London and Oxford. My dad’s an artist and my mum worked for a charity; I’m not from a business background, but after university I rebelled against my dad’s artistic sensibilities and went into the real-estate business!
I joined a commercial property investment company and then, six years ago, set up my own – Kinrise. We buy iconic buildings in UK city centres, renovate them, and lease out the space to a mixture of global companies, start-ups and freelancers. The vision is to play our part in the renewal of UK cities, hopefully encouraging talented business people to become invested in their community, stimulating the local economy and generating cultural growth.
My first foray into philanthropy of any sort was funding a well with my brothers and some friends in the 2000s. In the years following this, I went on to support various charities including becoming involved with The Centre for Social Justice’s report on modern slavery in the UK.
A few years ago, I realised that I was taking on too much and spreading myself too thin. I think this was because I’m always so excited to get involved with new ventures! I took a step back, focussed on my business again, and streamlined what I was funding. Currently, my wife and I support two main charities: one close to our home in East London and one internationally.
What’s the global issue you’re funding?
We support an organisation called Charity: Water. It exists to provide clean drinking water to communities around the world. Lack of drinking water is a problem faced by around 785 million people globally, that’s one in ten of the world’s population. Not only does this have obvious health implications, it also means that children and adults are having to walk miles for water, keeping them out of school and employment. It’s an issue causing more deaths each year than all global conflicts put together.
I got involved in this through meeting CEO Scott Harrison and being bowled over by his ambition. He was on a mission to create a charity which could reinvent how charity is done. His message was that charity should be based on hope, not guilt. The communication efforts of Charity: Water are all set up around this mantra and it is incredibly inspiring to be a part of this.
Charity: Water works to bring clean water to communities around the world.
Why is the message of ‘hope’ so important to you?
I’m an optimist and an idealist. There’s much to be negative about when reading the press, and I don’t think that drives us in a good direction. We sometimes forget that, despite still having massive challenges to go, we are making progress on many global issues.
For example, while Covid has of course been absolutely devastating, it has led to levels of collaboration and cooperation we could never have imagined. We were hit with a global pandemic and we answered it by producing and distributing vaccines in record timing. Messages of positivity make people feel like they can be part of a solution and I think it makes people far more inclined to support charities. For every bit of despair, I try to look for the hope.
Talk to us about SAINT, the local project you’re involved in.
SAINT is a church comprising multiple East London parishes. It’s a movement to make churches beacons for the local area, offering community outreach, running events, and housing new social ventures. East London is such a brilliant part of the city, but there is a lot of inequality and crime here, so it has its fair share of challenges. What better place to try and build a community around hope and social impact?
Our involvement here began when my wife and I moved from south London about four years ago to support the newly appointed Rector of Hackney. The church he was appointed to – St John at Hackney – was not fit for purpose. It had a leaky roof and was suffering from damp. Our funding here helped to restore the building. Since then, we’ve been thrilled to see the congregation grow from 50 to over 1,000 parishioners, and from one to five parishes. It also has an online congregation, which is all the rage in church circles at the moment!
While the main focus of our SAINT funding has been to restore the buildings themselves, we are excited to support its drive to incubate local social businesses. Flower businesses, gardening businesses, even an apiary and a brewery have all emerged from this. The profits from these enterprises go on to support addiction and homelessness programmes, as well as other services like food distribution and childcare. During Covid, the church has given out over 300,000 meals to local residents from all backgrounds and beliefs.
The ambition behind SAINT is to work for and be driven by the local community, serving the needs of locals, but benefitting from the efficiencies of being part of a group structure. We aim to be top-down efficient but bottom-up impactful.
SAINT is a church-cum-community in East London, comprised of five parishes.
You are a trustee of both SAINT and Charity: Water. Does this mean you prefer being more of a ‘hands-on’ giver?
That’s a very challenging question. I think you’ve highlighted something revealing about my nature here – I’m so interested in how different ventures work that I find it hard not to be directly involved!
Part of the reason I’m more ‘hands-on’ is that I really like to see how donor money is used, particularly in a charity context where there can so often be a trust deficit. Something which attracted me both to SAINT and Charity: Water is how forensic they are in their finance departments. When you are asking people to give away their hard earned money, it deserves a level of scrutiny in the way it is administered and invested.
Are there any red flags which stop you from supporting charities?
I think the character and integrity of the people leading an organisation is very important. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I analyse the feeling I get from my interactions with charity leaders, and try to consider how this might flow through the culture of the organisation.
There is also something to be said for transparency. There is so much nonsense reporting which deliberately tries to hide the challenges charities face. That kind of reporting makes me a bit uneasy. A few good case studies hiding many examples of poor stewardship is not honouring the giver.
Why should prospective philanthropists embark on giving?
The dopamine hit! No, I don’t know the precise science behind it but I have heard many times that giving is good for you mentally, physically, and emotionally. It feels right; it feels in-line with the way we were wired to be in community with other people and to help eachother.
Giving lets you embark on a journey of seeing a need, judging whether it is the right need for you to address, and then following the impact of your donation. The feedback loop is rewarding.
Also, you can grow into giving over time. It can be helpful to begin by calculating how much you need to live on and, from that, work out how much you have left to give. If you start making more money over time, keeping track of this calculation should allow you to grow your giving proportionately which is an amazing thing to be able to do.
Learn more about Kinrise, Charity: Water and Saint here: