Interview – Mitch Winehouse

Amy Winehouse died tragically on 23 July 2011, aged just 27. Less than two months later, on 14 September, her family launched the Amy Winehouse Foundation in her memory. What are the main goals of the foundation, Alliance editor Caroline Hartnell asked Mitch Winehouse. And what was it like to set up a grantmaking foundation when he didn’t know the first thing about foundations?
What were the biggest challenges he faced? Finally, does he plan to stay involved with the foundation? ‘This has saved my life. I’m definitely staying involved,’ was his unequivocal answer.

What are the main goals of the Amy Winehouse Foundation?
The Amy Winehouse Foundation works to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people. We also aim to support, inform and inspire vulnerable and disadvantaged young people to help them reach their full potential.
Our main goal is to help disadvantaged young people in as many meaningful ways as we can, for example we work with a number of young people’s homeless charities and a youth rehab facility, Focus 12, and of course we are working on the Amy Winehouse Schools Education Project, where we plan to take people in recovery into schools to talk about the dangers of drug and alcohol misuse.

So your main focus is on drug and alcohol services?
When we started, I wouldn’t say we shied away from drugs and alcohol. It’s pointless trying to hide the fact that Amy was involved with drugs and alcohol but we didn’t want her only to be associated with that. However, a year in we seem to have come full circle and have agreed that our primary focus will be in that area.

What will the education project cover?
We will be going into schools and talking to parents, teachers and obviously the children, and giving the information that is totally lacking – at the moment, there is no drug education policy in schools. But we don’t necessarily want the government to introduce it. If they do, they will probably want teachers, or perhaps nurses or policemen, to deliver the message, and of course they are completely the wrong people. Those in recovery will probably be the last people they would want talking about these things. So we are quite happy taking on the role without any kind of government assistance. If the government wants to chip in, that’s great, but we’re happy without.

We’ve partnered up with the drug charity Addaction as part of their Schools for Change project. They’ve got schools around the country ready for us to go into, and we’re receiving requests from other schools that want us to come and speak to them. We’re not there to lecture them and say ‘don’t take drugs’; the idea is that by hearing from a person who’s in recovery, the school community – the teachers and parents as well as the kids – will be able to learn from the terrible experiences they’ve had.

This ‘share’, as we call it, helps the young people; but it also helps the person in recovery who is able to talk about the experiences they’ve gone through. We don’t only speak about crack and heroin, we also talk about the dangers of alcohol and marijuana, which is where it starts, or the terrible epidemic of ketamine, party drugs and so-called legal highs. At the moment, you’ve got people dying of ketamine overdoses because they didn’t know about the effects it can have. So we give the kids the information, and leave it to them to use it as they feel fit. At least now, the young people we speak to can say ‘we know what ketamine can do: if it doesn’t kill you, it could cause bladder shrinkage’.

What are your plans in the short term?
Well, our short-term plan is pretty much to continue what we are doing at the moment. In this first year, we’ve pledged about half a million pounds, and we’ve got about half of that to award between now and the end of the year, and we’ve got a pretty good idea of where that money’s going.

From looking at your website, it sounded if these grants will be more in the area of campaigning and advocacy, rather than services. Is that right?

Campaigning and advocacy are things that we are doing alongside our main projects at the moment, for example talking with influential people in government; there’s no real cost to that. And in one way or another, most of the organizations that we support are involved in campaigning and advocacy, alongside providing a service.

Do you see the Amy Winehouse Foundation as having to step in to make up for government cutbacks – which I believe have hit drug and alcohol services badly?
Mitch Winehouse at the New Horizon Youth CenterI would say that most organizations like ours are having to make up the shortfall in government spending. The first thing that is affected is children’s facilities, so for example there’s very little music education and youth clubs are being cut. [Mitch Winehouse pictured in the studio at the New Horizon Youth Centre with some of the young people. AWF pays the salary of the music teacher.] As we said, there’s never been any drug education anyway, but there certainly isn’t any now.

Another problem is the way government spend their money. For example, there are so few people being referred to residential rehabilitation, but if you are within the criminal justice system you are five times more likely to be referred to residential rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction than if you’re a non-offender. That can’t be right. One of the major contributors to Focus 12 was someone who came to the project five years ago. Twenty years prior to that, he begged his local health authority to send him to rehab. They couldn’t afford the £5,000 to send him, yet he was in and out of prison for the next 20 years and cost the taxpayer £1.5 million. It is preposterous – why on earth can’t anybody see that?

Some people call residential rehabilitation ‘Hollywood-style treatment’ – nonsense. We’re sending people to Focus 12 for £600 a week. Focus 12 saved Russell Brand’s life, Boy George’s life, Davina McCall’s life – they didn’t go to The Priory for £10,000 a week. For the six months that they are there it works out as £15,000, so for £15,000 we can fix someone. But no, it’s better that they spend years going in and out of prison and inflicting problems on people in their local communities – which will cost millions of pounds. It’s absolute nonsense.

Do you see yourselves making many grants outside the UK?

I’m going out to the USA on Wednesday for a board meeting of our US foundation. With the benefit of hindsight, we probably established this too quickly. It would probably have been better to have left it for a couple of years. We’ve got a CEO out there and it’s going wonderfully, but I can’t be in both places at once and it puts a lot of strain on me going backwards and forwards. But we went ahead because I’m impatient and we want to try and help as many people as we can.

Will fundraising be an ongoing part of the foundation’s activities?
We’re currently developing our fundraising strategy, so we will have a good idea of how much money will be coming in and how much we need to raise, but next year, we hope to raise even more than this year. I’ve written a book, and all of the proceeds from that have gone back into the foundation. We’ve also had money coming in from royalties, from Amy’s Fred Perry line, and Universal were very generous: they gave us a pound from every album sold in the UK and Ireland from the Lioness: Hidden Treasures album.

So we’ve had quite a lot of money coming in, but we’ve also had quite a lot of start-up costs, so it’s sensible to be cautious. We don’t want to blow all our money in one year and then next year find we can’t afford office staff. We know pretty much what we’re going to be getting from royalties and from the fundraising. However, we are aware these proceeds won’t be coming in for ever, so we understand the importance of ongoing fundraising.

I’d like to ask you about your experience of setting up a foundation. Where did the idea come from? Were you familiar with grantmaking foundations before you set up the Amy Winehouse Foundation?
I didn’t have a clue. I think Amy gave me the idea because almost as soon as I heard that she’d passed away she was in my head telling me ‘foundation, foundation, foundation’, ‘children, children, children’. I was obviously in shock but this was in my mind all the time.

After about three days, I started talking to people and finding out what it entailed. We were lucky in that Robbie Williams’ mum contacted me immediately and we met up and explained what we wanted to do. She introduced me to Comic Relief and things took off from there. Comic Relief were wonderful. They helped us initially by taking donations for us, because we didn’t have the infrastructure to do it. They guided us and helped us. Really, we couldn’t have started without them.

As we progressed, we brought in our own people, who had experience in setting up foundations and charities, but frankly it was the blind leading the blind to begin with. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to set up a foundation?’ ‘Great, what is a foundation?’ ‘What is the difference between a foundation and a charity?’ I’m still not sure! But you learn as you go along and hope you don’t make too many mistakes.

We are very mindful of the fact that this is the public’s money. That’s why we have a board of trustees, so if I say I want to give £1 million to a dogs’ charity they say you can’t do that because the foundation’s mission is to help young people. It’s been trial and error, but it’s been interesting and most of the time it’s been very enjoyable.

The foundation was set up and launched within a relatively short time frame. What were the biggest challenges you faced?
I find one of the biggest challenges is to find the projects to give the money to. Even if we seem to be swamped with applications, settling on the right projects that we feel comfortable with is quite difficult. And we get lots of individuals asking for money and it’s very sad but obviously we can’t help them.

Originally my idea was to make 50 £10,000 donations a year. But then you’ve got to make out 50 lots of cheques, do 50 lots of due diligence, 50 visits, 50 lots of going back to make sure everything’s okay, 50 lots of audits … It was never going to work.

We do it differently now. We’ve decided as a board of trustees that we need to give larger contributions to fewer charities and projects to make a bigger impact. We might give a grant over three years rather than giving it all in one year. We might give them x amount every three months. There’s no point just giving somebody £10,000 and just hoping they spend it well. We’re now far more astute when it comes to grantmaking. Having a grantmaking strategy helps us with our cash flow as well.

Are all your grants for specific projects or are there some organizations you believe in so strongly you’d give them a grant to help them with the core costs of their organization?

Mitch talking to the resident nurse at the New Horizon Youth Centre - the AWF helped pay for the nurse to be thereWe tend to fund projects. Some projects out there are so strapped for money that they need cash to pay their staff, but for us it’s not about paying staff, it’s about helping children. However, sometimes paying for staff might be the best way of doing this. At the London Irish Centre, we fund a counsellor who works with young people who have found themselves in need of support and they help them with housing, work and any drug or alcohol problems they may have. So although we tend to fund projects, in this case it was a worker but specifically for a project that didn’t exist before. [Mitch Winehouse pictured talking to the resident nurse at the New Horizon Youth Centre. AWF helped pay for the nurse to be there.]

You talked about checking that the money’s been properly spent. Have you thought about going a step further and measuring how much impact each project has had, so that over time you can see what is working best?
That’s exactly what we need to do, and it’s why we need to scale down the number of charities and projects that we’re helping. With Focus 12, for instance, we’ve donated over £36,000 in order to make a bed available for young people up to 25 years old; previously they would have had to turn these people away. We are working very closely with them to monitor the progress of these people after they have come through rehab.

We also have agreements with all projects we fund that specify how many young people we expect them to be delivering to. We don’t want to give them loads of paperwork because that can mean they just end up trying to tick boxes. But they provide us with case studies and the like, so we can decide how best to spend our money in the future.

With something like your own Schools Education Project, won’t it be even harder to measure the impact?
Before every share, we ask the young people to fill out a questionnaire, and then when they come out, we ask them to fill out another one. So we get all that feedback. I suppose over time we could compare children who have gone through the project with those who haven’t, but that’s a long-term thing. But the only way we will really know if it’s working is if in 20 years the number of people presenting themselves with addiction problems is reduced. So it’s a leap of faith for us. And it’s not going to do any harm, let’s be honest. But measuring that outcome, that’s almost impossible.

Have you had much contact with others engaged in foundations with similar missions to yours? I’m wondering what it’s like to be a newcomer in this world of trusts and foundations, many of which have been established a long time. It can be a very cliquey world, although that’s not to say unfriendly…
It can be unfriendly, because foundations and charities have their own sponsors and understandably they want to keep them to themselves. We know that fundraising right now is very difficult. We’ve had one or two experiences of the competition element. But we’ve made some very meaningful associations with other foundations like Addaction and the Angelus Foundation.

I do believe in collaboration – I think the ‘Find Out’ campaign we’re launching alongside the Angelus Foundation is going to be very important, along with our own Schools Education Project. It works as long as everybody gets something out of it, without pinching anything from anybody else. We help the Angelus Foundation with their fundraising. I’m a jazz musician with a band, so we go and support their events and we’re happy to help in whatever way we can.

But again, you can’t help everybody. Unfortunately when we’re looking at other foundations and other charities, we do have to ask ourselves ‘what do we get out of this collaboration?’

Do you see yourself as remaining actively involved in the day-to-day running of the foundation, or as more of a figurehead?
This has saved my life. I’m definitely staying involved. As you grow, you can get the board of trustees overtaking the family. I don’t want that to happen. I am the chairman of the board, but I am one voice among eight or nine trustees. I can’t impose my will on anyone else, but equally I wouldn’t want to be divorced from that. I want to remain an active part for as long as I can. I’m only young-ish!

The foundation was created by Amy’s family, we want to carry that on and we want Amy’s legacy to grow; her music speaks for itself. We want everybody to look at Amy and see her as the loving and charitable woman she was.

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