A philanthropist’s experiences: In conversation with Sarah Butler-Sloss

06 December 2021

8 minute read

This is article two in a new four-part series exploring the role of philanthropy, the personal experiences of philanthropists, and the evolving global trends that are redefining the act of giving. You can access the other articles at the bottom of the page.

Sarah Butler-Sloss has more than 30 years’ philanthropy experience, and is internationally recognised for her work in sustainable energy through the Ashden Awards. A passionate supporter of the environment, she was a guest on our recent podcast, ‘The Power of philanthropy: Tackling climate change’.

Here Sarah shares more of her personal journey, the successes and challenges, as well as her insights into philanthropy done well.

How did your philanthropic journey begin?

I was 26 when I inherited money from my family and my father wisely encouraged me to put a significant part of it into philanthropy. He had set up an office with his brothers, which provided guidance and expertise in giving, which I joined. So I set up the Ashden Trust with my husband. We started very small, and essentially just rolled up our sleeves and followed, learnt about, and supported what interested us most.

How did you decide where to focus your giving?

I had studied zoology at university and was in awe of the natural world, its beauty, interconnectedness, and fragility. We could both see the harm happening to it and wanted to do our small part in protecting and restoring what we could.   

At the beginning of our journey, we were particularly interested in air pollution – my husband had asthma and we were very aware of the poor air quality in London where we lived. We initially supported people working in sustainable transport and cycling schemes, but we kept returning to the health issue that no one was really talking about.

We worked with NGOs, medical experts and scientists to commission a report on the impacts of air pollution on health, which was a problem. We followed this by working with Transport 2000 (renamed Campaign for Better Transport) and others to convene and campaign for sustainable transport. One particular success was reversing tax incentives for driving company cars, which at the time, actually encouraged increased car use.

So essentially, we saw a gap that needed addressing, and empowered those in a position to make that change.

How did you identify the right people to work with?

The environmentalist Jonathon Porritt was extremely influential at this stage of the journey. He gave us great advice and put us in touch with relevant NGOs that matched our interests, and we went from there. As you start meeting more people, you begin to understand the sector, and you can do your own diligence to find who’s really making a difference.

How did you go from tackling pollution in London to power in Africa?

As well as supporting environmental causes in the UK, we wanted to combine international development with sustainability. Back in the early 1990s, there were more than 3 billion people across the globe without electricity and clean cooking, so we focused on clean energy to help lift them out of poverty. We supported work happening in East Africa as we had contacts there, and I’d seen some of the problems first-hand when travelling. 

It was a very nascent sector, and Practical Action was instrumental in helping us find practitioners on the ground. We funded various pilot projects, from solar to biogas to clean cook stoves. We visited the projects we funded, and we’d see the amazing difference they were making to people’s lives – they weren’t choking over smoky fires, and they’d have safe light at night so, for example, children could do their homework.

We gave grants in this area for around 10 years. But it was frustrating in some ways. We could see the huge health, educational, economic and environmental benefits that bringing energy to people for the first time could deliver, but few organisations and aid agencies were supporting this work. So we set up the Ashden Awards (renamed Ashden Climate Solutions) to give these sort of innovators a platform to showcase their work and its benefits. After running very successful Awards for two years, we made the Ashden Awards a separate charity.

What challenges have you faced in your philanthropy?

Running a small foundation, one recurring challenge has been thinking of it as one organisation. This might seem a simple concept, but it’s not always the case. We were fortunate to be able to create an endowment, but we were told by our solicitor and our asset manager to view it with a totally different lens to our grant-giving, and to prioritise income over considerations about where we invested.

Our mission is supporting the environment, so we found it extremely uncomfortable being encouraged to invest in areas that conflicted with that goal, such as fossil fuels. The Charity Commission guidelines eventually allowed us to divest from fossil fuels. But now we want to go further and align our endowment to the Paris Agreement, so we’re currently seeking clarity through the High Court on mission-aligned investing for charities.

I believe it’s really important to think in a joined-up way about the grants you’re giving and your investments and what impact they’re having. There is no point in doing good with grants and then contradicting it with investments.

How do you define success and assess impact in your giving?

It really varies depending on the type of grant. We give grants in five different areas: sustainable agriculture in the UK, stopping deforestation, connecting people with nature, sustainable finance, and energy access (through Ashden Climate Solutions). Some are very research and advocacy focused, and for these, we look at how much media coverage they’re getting, are they gaining the attention of the decision makers, what changes are they catalysing etc.

Others are school programmes for example, so we look at how many children they reach, and the feedback they get from schools and pupils. We look at both qualitative and quantitative measures of impact. It’s also important to understand the organisations you support, and their leaders, to find the most effective ways to help them.

Have you made mistakes along the way? What did you learn from them?

We made one significant mistake, and it was a classic example of too much top-down interference. We were really excited by an organisation giving clean cook stoves to schools in Kenya, and we also saw some amazing work in solar power. So we tried to create a coordinated schools’ programme that brought them both together. But after nine months of trying, we couldn’t make it work. We simply didn’t understand the local culture, politics, customs and nuances well enough.

The experience taught me that you’ve got to listen to what’s happening on the ground, and support the great work being done, rather than thinking you know better. I realised that maybe we could help more by supporting existing work, and helping to expand or replicate it.

So empowering others is key. What else would you say makes for philanthropy done well?

It’s really important to focus on what you’re really interested in, and what you might have knowledge or expertise in. That way you can do it well, maximise your impact, and enjoy it. Then it’s about finding organisations that are aligned with your interests and goals and supporting them in whatever way they need.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work to date?

Ashden Trust’s work on air pollution in the very early days, and setting up a new charity that has gone on to have a significant impact on energy access, as well as sustainable cities in the UK, has been enormously rewarding. These are very proactive ways to give, but so much of my philanthropy is directly supporting brilliant organisations making a huge difference, often in their early stages, which is equally rewarding.

Carbon Tracker, for example, has had a huge impact on sustainable finance, and Client Earth, which has used the law to drive change e.g. by improving air quality in UK and European cities, or stopping new coal-fired power stations.

In the grand scheme of things, we’re a small charity, but even with small amounts, if you find those ‘acupuncture points’, you can make a real difference, and that’s really exciting and the greatest privilege.

What specific role can philanthropy play?

Philanthropy can make a profound difference – we can take risks that governments can’t, we can ask the big questions, uncover issues and get to the heart of them. Sometimes you can join up with enterprise, for example, though impact-first investing, but philanthropy really has the ability to reach places others can’t.

Any final thoughts?

My message is simple: NOW is the time to give back in any way you can, big or small. We’re facing a climate and biodiversity emergency that is impacting us all, and will increasingly threaten the lives of so many of us and our planet. It needs to be solved from every part of society – business, finance, law, science, the arts, media etc. So think about how you can help, jump in, learn as you go, and enjoy it!

Listen now

You can hear more from Sarah, and other philanthropists and pioneers, in our podcast ‘The Power of philanthropy: Tackling climate change’.

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