Why history matters to philanthropy practitioners  

Paul Ramsbottom

Like all social phenomena, philanthropy cannot be fully understood without some degree of historical context. Few would disagree with that statement – particularly in an organization that since 1972 has run the UK’s foremost prize for the writing of history: the Wolfson History Prize. How it is translated into an improved philanthropy is a more challenging question. For those of us involved in running the Wolfson Foundation, the history of philanthropy (both our own and others’) plays a practical role on a daily basis. 

First, it provides context to all that we do. It is striking how often echoes of historic debates are heard by those with a listening ear. For example, one of our major initiatives from the late 1960s was a programme to engage industry and universities in joint development with a highly practical focus. The debates relating to how academics prove their worth or ‘impact’ have a strikingly contemporary feel.

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve, Shetland Amenity Trust.

Recent history also informs our grantmaking strategy by helping us understand the rationales and relationships behind some of our earliest grants. A relationship by definition requires at least some historical knowledge. Scarcely a week goes by at Wolfson without a discussion about plans to refurbish (or remove) facilities funded by us over the past six decades. Being aware of the background is the prerequisite to making a sensible decision in these cases.

Next Special feature to read

The value of foundation history and archives 

Patricia Rosenfield