The dynamics of philanthropy through a family foundation

We speak to Philippa Charles, Director of the Garfield Weston Foundation, to understand what motivates the family’s philanthropy.

The Garfield Weston Foundation was created by the Weston family in 1958. It provides grants across a broad range of areas throughout the UK, including arts and culture, education, the environment, youth and welfare. Its focus is on supporting causes which have a profound and positive social impact. Since its inception, Garfield Weston has distributed over £1bn in charitable funding. The trustees remain family members and continue to inform the foundation’s activities today.

We spoke to Philippa Charles, director of Garfield Weston, to find out more about how the foundation operates. She discusses how Covid has impacted Garfield Weston’s strategy and what advice she has for new foundations.

philippa charles, director of garfield weston foundation

Garfield Weston has existed for over 50 years. Has the foundation’s strategy changed over time?

Some things have evolved considerably and yet other things remain wonderfully consistent. It’s a blend, really. Ten years ago the foundation was exclusively a responsive funder, but has developed over the past decade with a more blended strategy, including :

  • Actively commissioning research where we identify gaps in provision or sector capability, or if there is something we need to understand better as grant-makers;
  • Proactively creating a range of partnership programmes to increase the impact of our work;
  • Convening conversations and initiating collaborations where it is sensible to do so.

A lot of the developments over the past decade have enabled us to become more proactive and these are complemented by an ongoing approach which is about being responsive to need. This is a strong part of the family’s ethos, and a key motivator for their giving. The foundation holds the view that those closest to the beneficiaries are the experts in an issue – not the funder – and we respect that specialist knowledge.


Is there there a common theme which underpins Garfield Weston’s giving?

When you’re a broad funder, as we are, it can be hard for people to see what the common theme might be, but there certainly is one. The first thing is that our activities must meet a clear need and not be a ‘solution in search of a problem’. They must be also be high quality. Need and excellence are the benchmarks. Our activities fall into one or more of what we call our Three Cs. These are Capacity, Capability and Confidence:

  • Capacity – This is about funding. It is ensuring that organisations have the funds they need to do the things they do well and that will make a difference. Within this, we appreciate the important role that unrestricted funds play in allowing charities to operate effectively and we pay attention to cost recovery on projects.
  • Capability – This is about ensuring organisations have the skills, knowledge, and networks they need to maximise their impact.  We address this through a range of partnerships we initiated, such as: the Weston Loan Programme with the Art Fund, the Weston Charity Awards with Pilotlight and the Weston Communicating Climate programme with the Media Trust.
  • Confidence – This is about increasing exposure. In addition to funding and skills, a lot of charity progress comes from people seeing value in the charity’s work. With this in mind, we celebrate charities’ work through an awards programme, with winners receiving extra support from the foundation to increase their impact.

All of our activities tend to sit in at least one of those buckets. But the sweet spot is the part in the middle, where we are helping organisations to do all three.

garfield weston three cs

Note: Property of Garfield Weston Foundation


How does the family make decisions about their giving?

The family works very deliberately in a consensus-based way. This works remarkably well. I think this is because they all respect each other’s different areas of expertise and knowledge. So, everybody has a chance to put their perspective across. And because what we’re looking for is impact, rather than spending a predetermined amount of money on a specific cause, there is flexibility in what the family can accommodate.

The trustees are also prepared to give money to things that they are not personally engaged with, but can still see value in. An example of this could be a specific art form in which some of the trustees may not be particularly interested, but they recognise its social value in engaging others and so they think it is important to support. Over and above their personal interests, the trustees focus on need.


Is the foundation ‘hands-on’ with the organisations it supports?

The level of involvement varies depending on the organisation and what they need. We are very conscious of being a responsible funder and we don’t want to create a lot of extra work for organisations simply by being involved. That said, where we can add additional value, we aim to do so. All our staff and trustees are active volunteers in charities or within their community.

We have a strong belief in being hands-on in the sense that it’s important to understand what it’s like to run a charity and to be involved in the governance issues and the fundraising challenges. Our experience in these areas allows us to understand directly the constraints charities face. This informs our approach, which is to be clear, straightforward and transparent.


What has been the impact of Covid on your operations?

As we all know, many effective organisations have seen their income decimated while demand for their work and services has increased. We anticipate this trend will continue for some time.

In response, the scale of Garfield Weston’s funding has increased to a level never before seen in our history. We have given over £95m this financial year. We made sure that we ramped up our giving in line with the growing need out there. Part of this was through a specially-devised £30m Culture Fund, supporting 100 cultural organisations around the country.

We have also done some things that we don’t ordinarily do, like giving money to other grant-makers. Our trustees made a donation of £1m to the National Emergencies Trust before they launched. Normally we wouldn’t do this because we have direct relationships with organisations who apply to us, but the Covid crisis has been a unique situation and we wanted to make sure that small, grassroots organisations had access to funding swiftly – local community foundations played a vital role in this.

We’re also in the midst of a co-funded partnership with The Fore, for a programme to support BAME led organisations which are focusing on the most marginalised and disadvantaged. During the pandemic, we have all learnt a lot about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on some members of our society. While Covid has been devastating, it does present us with a clear opportunity to rebuild a fairer society.


What advice do you have for foundations starting out?

For us, what often works really well is to pilot an idea. We’re fans of starting something at a small level, learning from it, adapting our approach and then expanding when we are confident it works. You might have a grand vision, and that’s a good thing, but we find it helps to test different things to inform and evolve your thinking towards that vision.

Also, do what you’re passionate about and what you know about. I get a lot of calls from individuals considering establishing a foundation who are looking for advice. I always say that I’m happy to discuss how we do things, but it is important for them to know that there is more than one way to achieve a goal. We think our approach is effective, and we’re very proud of it, but it’s not the only way. Don’t be afraid to make change happen in your own way.

You can find out more about Garfield Weston’s activities by visiting their website here.