Philanthropy for the arts: An interview with Sir Vernon Ellis

08 July 2022

We were delighted to host a summer event with Sir Vernon Ellis, a prominent supporter of, and donor to, the arts. He spoke to Juliet Agnew, our Head of Philanthropy, about his personal philanthropy journey, and what he’s learnt along the way.

Here, we share some of the key discussion points from the event. 

Juliet Agnew (JA): Could you tell us how your philanthropy journey started?

Sir Vernon Ellis (VE): I was interested in music and the arts when I was young, and I did a lot of music at school. After university I got very involved in work, but right from the beginning of my career, I realised that although it’s important to focus on your day job, and to do it well, if that’s all you do, you’ll be very boring. You need to do something else as well, to be broader and sometimes opportunistic, and that way you find things start to appear.

I also had two ‘step-ups’ that helped me start my philanthropy journey. One was through work, as our company deducted a certain amount from employee salaries for good causes, and you could choose how some of it was donated. I started to take an interest in directing my money, and I began to see what good it could do. From then on, I was drawn into the governance side of things, as people asked me to get involved as a trustee.

The second step-up was receiving a considerable amount in shares following my company’s IPO in 2001. One of the challenges for many people in that situation, where you’ve suddenly become wealthy as a result of an IPO, a sale, or a bequest for example, is balancing passion and whimsy with rational decision-making, and I think you need a bit of both. It’s about understanding the practical aspects, such as the tax rules around philanthropy.

Another important subject is having a mentor. At that time, I was on the board of the English National Opera, and there was a huge project to restore the Colosseum that I was keen to contribute to personally, but my shares were locked up. The Chair of the English National Opera at the time, Martin Smith, had made a lot of money post-big bang and had set up a family foundation to get his children involved. So I chose to do something similar, primarily for technical reasons, but also to try and involve family, and my sister is now a terrific addition to our board.

JA: Your point about having a mentor is really important. Starting a philanthropy journey can be quite isolating, but you don’t have to work everything out for yourself.

VE: Absolutely. I didn’t think of it as mentoring at the time, but of course it was. A project I’m involved with now, ‘New Philanthropy for Arts & Culture’, has identified the need for a forum or mechanism to allow younger people to become trustees of organisations, to learn more, to gain access to mentors, and to build a network. I think this would be enormously helpful, because you are often on your own in the early days.

JA: How has your giving evolved over time, and what have you learnt from those early days?

VE: I was always interested in supporting the arts as I think they’re good for society – they can illuminate problems, promote discussion, entertain, and bring people together. But they can have more specific impacts in certain settings, and I’ve oriented more towards that.

Most traditional support for the arts is around specific institutions, such as the Royal Opera House, and these have some very dedicated supporters, which is great. But recently I’ve been looking at ways to get new people involved, by focusing on specialist arts organisations who are doing some tremendous work with people young and old, in different communities.

The challenge is getting across to potential supporters how rewarding making an impact can be. One project I’m involved in that illustrates it beautifully is ‘Brass for Africa’, which takes music to poor areas to inspire and empower those communities. Its success has been brought to life through an award-winning film, ‘Topawa! Never Give Up’, where you can hear amazing stories of how music has given young people a purpose in life, and even a vocation.

JA: That film is extraordinary, and really amplifies your point that sometimes it’s hard to articulate the impact of the arts, as so much of it is beyond words.

VE: Yes, and there are so many projects that are making a real difference: social prescribing, where people with long-term health conditions take part in art projects, can meaningfully reduce GP/hospital visits; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s STROKESTRA, where music is aiding stroke survivors’ physical recovery and wellbeing; or seeing how a musician, trained by Live Music Now, can bring so much more communication, joy, and agency to young people living with conditions such as autism. If you can find vehicles for people to participate and co-create art projects, it can have an extraordinary impact. 

JA: What do you think the arts sector needs in order to thrive?

VE: It’s a widely held myth that ticket prices cover costs – the arts need additional private or public support, and that has been the case throughout history. Often the arts can be seen as elitist, difficult, overly complex intellectually, which can be off-putting. We need to think about how we can improve access, widen demographics, lower ticket prices, find innovative ways to draw people in, and collaborate to make the arts more sustainable.

JA: How could people support the arts?

VE: It’s worth taking the time to explore what you enjoy. Perhaps find something in your community, such as activities based around a museum or theatre. Or consider becoming a trustee – it’s often challenging to balance objectivity and passionate support, but it’s very rewarding. If you get involved in giving, you get the reward for making a difference, and it’s also something you can keep going when you retire.

JA: What I’m hearing from you is a combination of passion and long-term commitment to a cause, which I think we could all learn from.

VE: Well over the long term, pieces build, and one thing reinforces another. You learn and begin to feel more confident in the journey, and that increases both the reward and the impact of your giving.

About Sir Vernon Ellis

Sir Vernon Ellis is Chair of Live Music Now, which connects world-class musicians with people experiencing social disadvantage or exclusion, and amongst other board positions, was previously Chair of the English National Opera and the British Council. An experienced philanthropist who donates through a personal foundation, he was knighted for services to music in 2011. Vernon worked at Accenture for more than 40 years, including as Managing Partner, EMEAI, 1989-2010 and International Chairman from 2001.

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