The Sigrid Rausing Trust ten years on – From wide angle to narrow focus

Jo Andrews

The Sigrid Rausing Trust celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer. Since it was set up in 1995 it has become one of the UK’s largest grantmakers, giving away over £55 million in all. It is known for its international outlook, its innovative approach and its willingness to support human rights, women’s rights and environmental justice.

These priorities, however, weren’t always so sharply drawn. Over the ten years, it has moved from a more traditional mixed portfolio to grantmaking that supports rights-based approaches to social change. This article charts the change and the thinking behind it.

Sigrid Rausing and her trustees decided late last year that the best way of marking the Trust’s tenth anniversary was to give £1 million in ten gifts of £100,000 each to the human rights campaigners it supports. The prizes have been awarded to those groups the trustees feel best embody the qualities they admire: good leadership, proven effectiveness (how has the group altered the landscape and is it able to go on doing this over and over again?) and an imaginative and innovative methodology (does it have an original approach to a specific problem the trustees care about?).

‘No nannying’

Those chosen give a good snapshot of where the Trust is at present, as well as underscoring the trustees’ belief that good leadership is the key to successful social change – in fact, they won’t give grants to groups that can’t show this. There is a firm ‘no nannying’ approach. Groups come to the Trust with ideas and the Trust decides whether or not it wants to support what’s put before it. If it does, then it stands back, lets the group get on with its project or mission, and tries to provide support in as flexible a way as possible, with a yearly re-application and review. That can’t work without intelligent and effective leadership in place. The flip side of this is that groups that lose their way tend to lose their funding. Also, leadership change needs to be managed carefully.

During the prize-awarding process three essentials of leadership were identified:

  • The individual qualities of the leader: are they charismatic and forward-looking, and offering appropriate leadership for the current phase of their organization?
  • Can they shift the terms of the debate? Can they make society and decision-makers re-order their priorities? Two examples: 15 years ago Amnesty International argued that violence against women wasn’t a human rights issue; today they have a long-term campaign focused directly on it as a central part of human rights work. Until recently, rape in war was seen as something ‘that happens’; now it is categorized as a war crime. These developments were brought about by four or five leading activists in different parts of the world who got the funding they needed at the right time.
  • What’s their record? Whose lives have they changed and how? Carolyn Hamilton at the Children’s Legal Centre has helped to improve the lives of thousands of marginalized children in Romania, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Sierra Leone and other fragile societies – not by opening orphanages, but by helping their governments to design and implement humane child protection, fostering and juvenile justice policies, and to close their dire children’s colonies and prisons.


All the winners address the serious global problems of our age. They include Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, who is changing Africa by identifying and supporting grassroots women’s groups across the continent; Wanda Nowicka in Poland, who defends the reproductive rights of women in Eastern Europe; Kerim Yildiz of Kurdish Human Rights Project, a group that has almost single-handedly raised the profile and standing of this people without a country; and Richard Fuller of the Blacksmith Institute, which actively puts together technical expertise and money to clean up the world’s most polluted places.[1]

No ‘sticking plaster’ grants

These grants will be just ten among more than a hundred separate awards made this year, totalling £12.5 million and ranging in size from £2,500 to around £750,000. There are no geographical limits on where the Trust will fund, but groups must have charitable aims and fall within the fields of Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Minority and Indigenous Rights, and Social and Environmental Advocacy. Every grant is filtered for its relevance to women. There is an emphasis on a rights-based approach and an understanding among the trustees that what they are trying to do is to alter the root causes of problems rather than mitigate the effects. As Sigrid Rausing says: ‘We don’t do sticking plaster.’

This is a different, sharper philosophy from the one the trustees started with. A look at the first list of successful applicants in 1996 shows how much has changed. Some elements have been there from the start – the focus on international causes and the interest in human rights, with grants to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, and the emphasis on gender, with a grant to Womankind Worldwide. All three remain in the portfolio today. But others like the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, Zoocheck, Whirlwind Wheelchair International and the NSPCC[2] have disappeared. The original categories the trustees drew up were broadly cast: Human Rights and Development, Environmental Protection, and Arts and the Media, with a General section added later. As Sigrid Rausing puts it: ‘Initially I took a more scattergun and reactive approach to funding. We’ve gradually become more focused and proactive.’ The Trust also operated with no public profile; applications were by invitation only, with no visible way in for groups that didn’t have personal contacts with trustees.

Origins and influences

Sigrid grew up in Sweden at a time when the country became home to refugees fleeing Chile and the Vietnam War. Her mother passed on her own profound impressions of the Holocaust, while Sigrid’s feminism developed as a student at York University in the UK. Her convictions, and her strong sense that you have to give something back, provided the motive for founding the Trust, and her inheritance of part of the wealth created by her father and grandfather in the Tetrapak packaging group provided the means.

The other force was, and remains, Joshua Mailman, a trustee and a US philanthropist with a particular interest in environmental justice, toxics and human health, as well as corporate responsibility. He is also thoughtful about the process of philanthropy itself, and has played a key role in setting up a number of organizations, including the Social Venture Network, Business for Social Responsibility, the Threshold Foundation and the Tides Foundation in the US, as well as the Network for Social Change in the UK.

What the Trust has learned

The past ten years have brought some major lessons:

Address the root causes of problems
Grants for emergency relief or service provision are needed and valuable, but a number of others occupy this niche (look at the response to the tsunami). More importantly, such grants don’t address the root causes of a problem, only its effects. The trustees agreed that if they were serious about long-term structural change, they had to fund advocacy and campaigning groups such as the European Roma Rights Centre and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which squarely address reform of the framework and institutions in their field, and often find it hard to get other funds. The Trust does still fund some service provision, but only where new ground is being broken, and it tends to move on as soon as the method or approach migrates into the mainstream.

Fund groups with a rights-based approach
This means that beneficiaries have an active stake in the process rather than being passive recipients of help. Grants thus become self-help rather than aid. As the umbrella of human rights has spread to include women’s rights, environmental justice and a debate about economic, social and cultural rights, the Trust has been able to bring all its areas of interest under this canopy. In my view, the rights approach isn’t perfect but it’s the best currently available.

Move gender centre stage
Women’s rights were always important, but over time they have moved to the heart of what the Trust does. Every grant is screened for its impact on women. This was prompted by Sigrid’s increasing awareness of the extent to which women around the world remain deeply marginalized, both politically and economically.

Pick your issues and identify the political spaces
A grant will create interesting ripples if you get this right. If you get it wrong, it will sink. According to Joshua Mailman, ‘We really went out to identify a network of movements around women’s rights and environmental rights. If you are going to change the world, you have to have movements on the ground, not just in the capitals of power.’ The Trust is starting to look at specific issues and areas where it can have an impact. New issues include women’s inheritance rights and widows’ rights, labour rights, and the commercialization of water – all key issues for the global South. The trustees have also identified Turkey as a pivotal area where funds are needed to help stabilize civil society.

Look for leverage
How can you make the money worth more? Can it act to bring in other funds or other interests? The Trust awarded a grant to the International Gay and Lesbian Association in Brussels. It was used to fund outreach work with small, harassed groups in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; at the same time it acted as a 10 per cent match to bring in a much larger grant from the EU for work in the new accession countries. Again, if the Sigrid Rausing Trust makes a grant it can attract other foundations, who, like most of us, usually feel safer in numbers.

Define your risk
The Trust is based on private, not public, money, which leaves it freer than other foundations to take a higher level of operational risk, particularly with its small grants.[3]

Retention of original focus or openness?
This is a dilemma that most growing organizations face. The Trust has tried to find a balance. It began as a small venture between friends, with no staff. It still retains its sense of intimacy, but it now has a director, an administrator and two programme officers, with an open application process, a website and a public profile. The motive for these changes was that Sigrid wanted to understand better how her money was being used. She wanted a clearer picture of what worked and what didn’t. This demands oversight and therefore staff – but not too many of them. Having some staff meant that greater transparency, particularly for potential applicants, was feasible. Sigrid’s confidence as a philanthropist also grew and she could see the force of the argument that developing a public profile helps encourage other potential philanthropists to follow the same path.

The next decade

This summer we move into the Trust’s second ten years, which will bring its own debates and decisions. Some can already be identified: evaluation – how can we improve this without commissioning 40-page reports that cost thousands of pounds? How can we double our funding for women’s rights and underpin the foundations of a successful and confident global movement for change? How can we tailor our grants to stabilize and grow groups? Above all, how can we make the sum of the Trust’s grants add up to more than its parts?

What I hope won’t alter is the Trust’s commitment to progressive change, its openness to new approaches and its willingness to take a risk and back a good leader with a great idea.

1 Sigrid Rausing prizewinners are: Caroline Hamilton, Children’s Legal Centre, London; Han Dongfang, China Labour Bulletin, Hong Kong; Gareth Evans, International Crisis Group, Brussels; Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, African Women’s Development Fund, Accra; Joanna Kerr, Association of Women’s Rights in Development, Toronto; Wanda Nowicka, ASTRA (Sexual and Reproductive Rights), Warsaw; Kerim Yildiz, Kurdish Human Rights Project, London; Paula Ettelbrick, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, New York; Richard Fuller, Blacksmith Institute, New York; Nicholas Hildyard and Susan Hawley, The Corner House, Dorset, UK.

2 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

3 Grants up to £10,000 can be made between trustees’ meetings, approved by the trustees. The aim of this is to offer flexible support to smaller groups around the world, which may present a higher level of risk than would be acceptable with larger grants.

Jo Andrews is Director of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. She can be contacted at


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