The Lockdown Interviews – 17 – Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive, Wolfson Foundation, July 2020

Paul Ramsbottom. Photo (c) John Cairns.

Lockdown Interviews – Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive, Wolfson Foundation.

1 – For those who aren’t familiar with the Wolfson Foundation, could you explain what the Wolfson Foundation does and the types of sectors and projects that you fund.

We are an endowed charity, we fund quite widely across education and research. We are probably best known for our funding of universities, but a really important element of what we fund is the cultural sector and museums and galleries in particular. We have been funding in that area since the 1960s, so it is a long term investment and effectively we do three things in terms of our funding of museums and galleries: the first is to fund capital infrastructure, secondly, we are longstanding funders of Art Fund and help them with their acquisitions and supporting curators through their New Collecting Awardsand thirdly we are also known for our partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This is a targeted programme – the DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, which is about slightly ‘unglamorous’ refurbishment work.

We give away between £30-40 million pounds a year.

2 – How has the Wolfson Foundation responded to the coronavirus crisis in terms of supporting organisations in such unprecedented times?

As soon as the crisis hit we offered quite a large proportion of our portfolio of existing capital projects – these are organisations that have been pledged money for their capital projects – to simply have that money paid immediately in unrestricted forms, so it could just sit in their bank accounts. Hopefully they would still do the capital projects, but even if they didn’t it is there so they can use it for what they want, they can use it as a buffer. That was quite a simple thing to do, it was a way of pumping money quickly into the system.

We were in the middle of a grant round when Covid-19 struck and so we thought we owed it to these organisations to continue to consider their proposals and make the awards. A large proportion of those have been offered on flexible terms, it is for the capital project but we can pay it out and it can be used flexibly. We felt a real responsibility because people had put a lot of time and effort into their proposals. Indeed we have made a number of awards even where we know the project probably won’t go ahead.

That, in one sense, has been straightforward because it is about flexibility. The more difficult set of decisions have been about framing a Covid-19 support fund, which we are going to do in the back-end of the year. That is going to be funding that is very light touch in terms of the administration, and it is going to be unrestricted. It is really for organisations who are hopefully coming out of the first phase of the crisis and opening their doors again.

The challenge and the agonising decision – and I know the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and others have been thinking about this too – is who you include in that programme and who you don’t. Normally as an organisation we are committed to an open process. We are very transparent about what we want to fund: we put out a call for proposals, applications come in, we have an assessment process and we make a decision. Transparency – and running an open access programme – is absolutely key. But in this case virtually every organisation we work with in the country has got significant needs of one sort or another.

The question then is, do you stick with the organisations that you have been working with in the last two or three years if that allows you to get money out quite quickly, rationally and easily? Or do you say ‘well actually that is maintaining the status quo and working with organisations that you know’. That has been a really challenging set of issues to work through for us and, I suspect, all funders. The only realistic way we can get money out the door quickly, reasonably and without creating lots of work for organisations at a time when there isn’t a lot of bandwidth, is effectively to provide top-up grants for organisations we have been working with over the last few years, so this is how our Covid-19 Support fund will be structured.

These are not a trivial set of issues to work through. Partly, I think, because if you build a team, as we have tried to at Wolfson, where a hallmark of the way you work is to be really, really understanding, breaking down power dynamics, employing people who care passionately about the sectors we serve, you feel this great responsibility. Our little bit of money is tiny compared to the Government’s cultural bail-out fund, but for the organisations that we are able to fund this year it will be significant. It will help them through a very difficult time.

My sense is the crisis has galvanized a number of trends that were already there in the philanthropic sector – one of them is better communication between funders. A better level of communication and a genuine understanding that at this juncture we don’t want to be endlessly asking organisations the same questions, getting multiple iterations of the same type of forms. That has been a positive. There has been a tremendous amount of conversation going on in the background between funders including NLHF, DCMS and Arts Council England as well as the philanthropic foundations, and that has been quite heartening I think.

3 – Will the Wolfson Foundation’s strategic priorities change in the next 1-2 or 2-5 years to reflect societal need?

One of the really interesting, difficult dilemmas for an infrastructure funder at the moment has been the extent to which you have a view that most sectors cannot afford to have a holiday from any type of capital infrastructure investment. The logic of this view is that you then keep funding capital. The alternative view is that this is a crisis like we have never seen before and in many cases it is an existential crisis. Therefore we need to pivot our funding entirely and provide emergency funding. An iteration of that dilemma is more or less what every funder is having at the moment.

Do we stick with our strategy which we feel is really important and is long-term? Or do we say that the crisis is so great that we have to shift everything?

One of the hallmarks of private funders or philanthropic funders should be that they can be flexible, that they can move quite quickly and adapt and I think leading an organisation, keeping true to your strategic principles but adapting quickly to changing circumstance, to my mind is part of the art of being a philanthropic organisation. Certainly that is what we have been trying to do this year.

In terms of the strategic framework, your values stay absolutely the same, the principles on which you base everything stay the same, the areas in which you fund stay the same. We still absolutely believe education, research, and the cultural world is more important now than ever. Really the question for us is the extent to which we divert some funding away from immediate capital infrastructure funding and into more flexible forms of funding.

At the moment we have plans to the end of the year, then we will have a look and see what the needs are, and listen to the organisations that we are working with.

I think a few takeaways from the crisis for Wolfson is that organisations really appreciate quick turnaround times and light touch administration. We knew that, but it has forced us to really think about that. We have been talking about breaking down power dynamics between funders and recipients for years but when you have an existential crisis it really does break those down. You can have conversations that perhaps you can’t have when everybody is putting on their ‘slick’ fundraising / ‘slick’ funder exterior. I hope those very honest conversations might be more standard.

I think there is going to be a kind of dichotomy opening up within funders – either you will have philanthropic funders who are funding core costs or you will have specialist funders who are funding something like capital infrastructure. I hope that the middle ground that funders inhabited where they asked organisations to invent a three year programme which had people scratching their heads saying, ‘ how can we do something that looks new and imaginative?’, will be addressed. Wolfson didn’t do that type of funding anyway but I think across the whole sector that will be squeezed and I think that will be a good thing.

You will perhaps then have either unrestricted or specialist funders. One interesting question for us as we go into 2021 after pivoting a lot of our funding to unrestricted is the pace at which we move back to being a specialist again. The honest answer is that it is a bit too early to say.

Funders probably don’t do as much listening as they should. If the crisis emboldens us to have better conversations about funding and the limitations of funding that will also be a positive thing. The great danger for funders is complacency. One of the functions of a well-run funding organisation is to think about how you puncture your own complacency and how you build in mechanisms so people can feel that they can give genuine feedback so what you are doing is improved.

4 – Do you think the decision makers in heritage funding are diverse enough to understand and reach a wider range of groups, projects and organisations?

The answer is straightforward if we are honest. The decision-making community within heritage and the arts across the board, whether that is in philanthropy or elsewhere, is not diverse.

We need to be thoughtful and intelligent about our decision-making processes and think about how we draw people into those in a variety of roles and guises with different perspectives and different experiences. Whilst that is not a trivial thing it is absolutely essential that we do that. Until we do, all the talk of analysing how effective and diverse an organisation is by what it funds is almost a secondary issue, because if there is a structural issue that the voices and perspectives of a particular community are not there around the table, the funding isn’t fully going to reflect that.

It is about structures and perhaps being creative about how you go about that. If you are doing reviewing, if you are having expert panels, if you are appointing boards, how you ensure that those voices are there and not there in a tokenistic way either? You have to look across the whole of the sector and say this is much discussed, there are examples of good practice but it is an issue that we have in no sense cracked. The last three months have brought it to the fore, both with the Covid-19 crisis and the debates around racial inequality and injustice in society.

5 – You have been working for Wolfson Foundation since 1998 – do you think we will see a change in the funding landscape in future?  

Some of the long term shifts I think are being catalysed to some extent by the crisis that we are going through. First thing to mention is the dearth of new foundations being set up. Actually, I think people are giving in different ways. It is not that new philanthropists aren’t coming on board, but they aren’t coming on board at the pace we would like and they are not setting up their giving structures in the way they did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, the Sainsbury trusts etc – these were all set up in a 15-20 year period. We are not seeing those type of structures being set up as much.

At micro-level the breakdown of power dynamics between funder and recipient in all its shapes and forms is a trend, and I hope it is a trend that we continue to see. I think that will affect what is going on in different ways; we will perhaps move away from funding that looks like it is hooked round the need of the funder rather than the fundraising organisation. I hope we will see decision-making that is more participatory- – participatory grant making has been a big trend and it has been a big part of the breakdown of the power dynamic. I hope we will see better conversations between fundraising organisations and funders that are mature conversation, and are peer-to-peer conversations. I see all of those as being medium term trends. A lot of that may be accelerated by what is currently going on.

I think the fact that there is now a recession means that we have had a wake-up call as a society, – and that these organisations that we love, that we visit with our families, that have been part of the fabric of our lives, shouldn’t be taken for granted. They are more fragile than we ever imagined and therefore there is a role for philanthropy, absolutely, to kind of step in alongside statutory funding – but it has to be a combination of the two to ensure we are on a stable financial footing as we emerge from this crisis.

6 – Is there a project recently funded that really sums up what Wolfson funds or a project that you feel can really make a difference to fractured communities at this time?

This is like asking who your favourite child is! One of the great things about Wolfson is we fund all the way from a medieval church in a deprived rural community to the redevelopment of Manchester Museum.

One that is on my mind at the moment is the re-imagining and reframing of Paisley Museum. It is quite an ambitious project, particularly at this moment, because it is taking that collection, which is a really good collection, at one of the first municipal museums in Scotland and re-interpreting it for the 21st century. Paisley Museum will place those collections right at the heart of Paisley’s identity. It really speaks about the way in which it can draw the community together and the way in which museums and museum collections can work in an area of relative deprivation as a real positive.

During the re-development they have moved the collections to a unique town centre museum store in Paisley. It is the first publicly accessible museum store on a UK high street and a great way to engage local people and re-connect them with the fantastic collections that the museum holds.

This interview was collected on 10th July 2020.

You can read more Lockdown Interviews here


You can find out more about the Wolfson Foundation here –

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