Interview – Sarah Butler-Sloss

Sarah Butler-SlossSarah Butler-Sloss is Executive Chair of the Ashden Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, which she founded in the late 1980s. In 2001, she established the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy. What did she feel she could achieve with the awards that she wasn’t achieving with the Trust, Alliance asked her? And what more can foundations do as a sector to bring climate change to the centre of public debate and onto the political agenda?

I understand that you were a committed environmentalist before being a philanthropist? How did you come to philanthropy?

I became a philanthropist due to being a member of the Sainsbury family, having some money, and following in the family tradition. All the Sainsbury family charitable trusts were being administered from one office, with one team of people giving advice about appropriate areas to give, so it was a very easy set-up to slot into. Obviously I had a slightly different agenda to a lot of the Sainsbury family trusts. Although one trust had done some work on the environment, it was an area that was central to the Ashden Trust from the very beginning in 1989/90. I read zoology at university and I was very aware of both the wonders and the fragility of nature.

When you started the Ashden Awards in 2001, you gave small grants on a similar scale through the Trust. What did you feel you could achieve with the awards that you weren’t achieving with the Trust?

From the very beginning with the Trust, we were interested in dealing with environmental issues both in the UK and in the developing world. The area we decided to focus on in the developing world was renewable energy. We saw it not only as an environmental issue but also as a way of easing poverty and improving health and education, and all the other benefits that energy can bring to communities. Through the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts we had a lot of connections in Africa so we focused mainly on East Africa and supported small renewable energy projects there.

Time and again, they were extremely successful projects that seemed to be delivering fantastic social and economic benefits to the communities that they were implemented in. They were clean and sustainable and, as I saw it, an important avenue to go down for the developing world. But no one else was really replicating them because no one was really interested in renewable energy, and although we tried to raise awareness with other larger NGOs, it was like hitting your head against a brick wall. And the projects never got any further. The Ashden Trust was very, very small in the early days. We were giving out grants for £5,000 or £10,000, which didn’t go beyond supporting one or two projects.

Then, around 2000, I happened to meet Edward Whitley, who was running the Whitley Awards for Conservation, and he suggested that we join the Whitley Awards with an award for renewable energy schemes in the developing world. We tried it out and overnight we discovered the impact of having an award scheme. Though it’s more time-consuming and much more costly than giving grants, it suddenly catapults the projects that you select into the public eye.

In the first year we made an award for sustainable energy through the Whitley Awards, the winner of that prize was a local hero when he returned home: he was front page in the national press, he was greeted off the aeroplane by the president of his country, and his institute started receiving far more grants. So, with this award we had achieved what we’d wanted to achieve in ten years of grants.

The second year we repeated the exercise and gave another award through the Whitley Awards. This was so successful that we decided we wanted to have more awards because of the kudos, the media coverage, and the political clout the winners got in their country, and the ability it gave them to raise far more funds than they ever could have in the past. In the past we had found that renewable energy was frowned upon, pooh-poohed, by the local politicians, by other NGOs or by the influential world, and suddenly this was giving the technologies kudos, and the projects were becoming front page news in the national papers. It also helped having the award winners pictured shaking hands with Princess Anne and now our patron Prince Charles. In 2003 we started a separate awards scheme, the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, with rewards for projects in the developing world and the UK.

But you’re still making small grants through the Ashden Trust?

Yes, we make significant grants across a range of fields from urban regeneration and homelessness projects to community arts – and of course we continue to support environmental and sustainability projects. The Ashden Trust still give some grants to renewable energy projects in the developing world and the UK, but to projects that are at an earlier stage than the projects that we award in our awards scheme, projects that have done a pilot and need to expand. They vary from £1,000 to £20,000 over a few years. It wouldn’t make sense if we gave larger sums to people that hadn’t gone through the awards process. We’ve got a great process for finding the best players in the field through the awards.

So what’s different about the award is that winners receive a substantial amount of money all at once, and the publicity?

Above all it’s the publicity and the kudos. We bring our award winners over to the UK and we arrange several seminars for them to be involved in. We have a seminar where they make presentations to people who work in the renewable energy field in the UK, and to students. We’ve also done a seminar for DfID [the Department for International Development], so the award winners are talking to people at DfID about their projects and hopefully inspiring them to replicate them in some shape or form.

So we’re raising awareness through the media, we’re raising awareness through influential circles, and we’re giving them the award money. We don’t give it all in one fell swoop, by the way, it’s divided into two portions. The winners of the first prize get £15,000 and after completing a successful feedback report they get a further £15,000. We are also beginning to look at further ways of helping our winners through business support and advice and networking opportunities.

Why do you have a special African award?

The reason for that is that we see Africa as a continent that could be one of the greatest victims of climate change. We want to ensure that we have a first and a second prize winner from Africa to highlight the issue and the possible solutions.

I gather that you do raise some money for the Ashden Awards from other contributors. Has being also a fundraiser changed your attitude as a grantmaker at all?

Yes, it’s definitely changed my attitude. I think it’s a fantastic exercise for grantmakers to be on both sides of the fence occasionally.

I like the idea of intelligent giving and intelligent receiving. When we have a funder, we really engage them in what we’re doing. For instance, we make sure that they turn up to one of the judging sessions. They don’t actually get involved in the judging, but they see the presentations from the judges who have visited the projects and they make their comments, and they often make recommendations about how we could move forward. They not only give us financial support but they also give us a lot of their experience of giving in the field to help us improve our act.

So whichever side of the fence I’m on, I am greatly in favour of funders and recipients talking to each other. Obviously, we don’t want too much categorical advice – ‘you’ve got to go down X, Y and Z avenue otherwise we won’t fund you’. It’s the exchange of views that I think is crucial and I really respect those on both sides of the fence.

Do you have close relationships with your Ashden Trust grantees?

Yes. There are several organizations that we regularly fund and we’ll be involved in a dialogue with them, sometimes setting up projects together, or encouraging them to address a certain issue. Or they come to us and tell us their proposal, and we get into some form of dialogue. In the environmental field especially, I love engaging with the organizations that we’re helping fund, to really understand the rationale behind their work and how and why they’re doing it. So both as a funder and as a fundraiser I enjoy that exchange of opinions and I think it enhances both organizations.

So the insight you gained from being on the fundraising side was to see how valuable that can be from the other side as well?

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a balancing act. You don’t want to be too forceful with your views as a funder, you want to keep it as advice and sharing of ideas. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so reticent that you don’t offer what you have to offer. Because you’re seeing so many different organizations, often approaching the same sort of situation in different ways, you sometimes see more effective ways of doing it. So there is plenty of advice that we can offer as funders, and it is very nice when people respect those views. And similarly as a fundraiser it’s very interesting hearing their views. All the views we’ve had from our funders have been very useful.

In an article on philanthropy in The Economist last February, Matthew Bishop coined the word ‘philanthrocapitalist’. What he meant was donors wanting to see philanthropy as social investment, being very results orientated, very hands-on, wanting to apply business skills to philanthropy. Do you identify with that?

I do, I think it is a really interesting way that philanthropy is evolving. It’s a form of social investment – venture philanthropy is another term I’ve heard – and I think that the Awards do that to an extent. I would say about 50 per cent of the projects we award are small businesses, because at the end of the day businesses have a way of meeting demand and providing customers with what they want. So time and again, our winners have been small businesses that really understand how to put good ideas into practice.

Also, from the Ashden Trust point of view, we’ve been involved in social investment, either giving loans or buying some form of equity from charities or social enterprises. That’s another exciting new area of giving too.

And I guess you’re pretty hands-on yourself as a philanthropist? You are described as the Executive Chair of the Ashden Trust, you’re on the judging panel for the UK and the international awards – it’s obviously not something that somebody else does for you.

No, I’m very hands-on, it’s my baby. It’s something I’m passionate about and it was my vision. I never thought it would go this far, I have to say, and never thought it would be as successful as I think it is. I’m the sort of person that if I don’t have to do something, I might not do it, so being on the judging panels means that I read about all those projects, I understand them, and I’m really engaged with them. And I think you’ve got to understand the projects that you’re awarding in order to run the scheme well. So yes, I’m very hands-on, pretty full time, I would say.

The Ashden Awards are doing a lot to bring renewable energy and particular organizations that are pioneering schemes into the public eye. Going a step further, do you think that there’s anything that foundations can do as a sector to bring climate change to the centre of public debate, and right onto the political agenda where it needs to be?

If you’d asked me this question a year ago, I would have said yes, there is a really important role that foundations could play in the sector in raising climate change up the political agenda and raising it in the public eye as an important issue to address. I feel that today – which wasn’t true a year ago – it actually is at the top of the agenda. It’s hugely covered in the media and talked about in politics.

I think where foundations can play a role is in helping to find the right solutions. I don’t want to get into politics, but very often the political world likes to find an answer that fits all, and with climate change there isn’t one. There are a huge number. Politicians also like ‘big fits all’ as well, because it’s much easier to do big scale projects.

That’s where the awards have played a role – in raising awareness of the need for multi-pronged attempts to find answers, within the field of renewable energy, that are also relevant to the cultures and the places in which they are being implemented. All the projects that we’ve awarded in the developing world are grassroots projects that have evolved from a need and from the local environment. They are not top-down projects. And that’s where the danger is, that we end up with climate change at the top of the political agenda finding easy top-down answers that don’t work on the ground.

Politicians need to be shown examples of some of the more thoughtful and appropriate approaches that can actually work on the ground, whether this is in the UK context or the international. To an extent, what we’re trying to do with the awards is to raise awareness of these examples of how to do local generation of energy. When they are successful, they can also be rolled out to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people. We have several examples of past award winners that are reaching more than a million people. Local energy generation has to work in the local environment and culture. I think that’s where foundations have a key role to play, in finding the right solutions rather than the quick fixes.

Don’t you fear, though, that when it comes to voting, and the choice is between the environment and the next tax cut, people will vote for the tax cut, and that the environment is not really a big enough issue in the popular mind?

It’s very difficult to say. Raising the concerns of people to the right level is very difficult. I don’t think the current government is doing enough, and it’s easy for the opposition to say lots of good and well-meaning things but who knows what would happen if and when they came to power. I feel there is a groundswell going on, and maybe it’s because I’ve just watched the David Attenborough programme and I see various stories being covered in the newspapers at the moment. And I’m generally an optimist rather than a pessimist, which is why I look for the solutions. But I think there is a groundswell of opinion going on. Whether the politicians can meet it and turn it into votes, I don’t know.

Is there anything more you’d like to say?

One thing I’d just like to emphasize is that finding the examples of the innovators, the people out there who are really achieving things, is such a powerful tool. No matter how much you talk about problems or their potential solutions, until you see them on the ground working, it’s very difficult to imagine what the solutions really are. The projects we award, these appropriate clean technologies, bring so many win-win solutions. Seeing those in practice in the field and the social, economic and environmental benefits they bring is fantastically rewarding, and I think a powerful tool to encourage more people into the field of appropriate solutions and clean technologies.

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