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  1. Impact Philanthropy
January 4, 2011

Dame Stephanie Shirley on her philanthropy at the Oxford Internet Institute

By Spear's


In this new column, Zain Alatas talks to a philanthropist and the recipient of their philanthropy. First, Dame Stephanie Shirley and Professor William Dutton

My earliest links with philanthropy go back to my childhood. I arrived in this country from Vienna in 1939, as an unaccompanied child refugee on a Kindertransport. It was not an easy start but people welcomed me, loved me, and did all that any family could do for a child. After that I always felt a strong urge to start giving back.

It has certainly been a journey for me. What I know now is much more than I did even a year ago and I am still learning all the time, partly about myself but also about the different ways in which one can get involved.

I have discovered that as a philanthropist I can give away the money that I have made in business with a very satisfactory conclusion; the money has now become significant purely because I have given it away. Knowing that it is going to good purposes has also helped me to feel more comfortable about my wealth. I feel that money that just moulders away in a bank account has a sort of obscenity about it.

There shouldn’t, in my belief, be any ‘ought’ or ‘should’ about giving. I don’t think a particular person should give more than they do, or that it should be 10 per cent or 30 per cent of their wealth. Every skill required in business can be transferred into the not-for-profit area — things about focus, about metrics, about resources. Often time, commitment and introductions are just as valuable as money.

There is much to be said for the give and take of philanthropy. It is not difficult to show a donor the impact of their giving, and doing that can make all the difference. Philanthropy is something you should do because it stimulates you, and I concentrate on the things I know and care about: IT, my professional discipline, and autism, my late son’s disorder. Giving has now become a part of my personality.

As an entrepreneur I like starting things, so giving strategically is something I enjoy. When I first supported the Oxford Internet Institute, the first thing I did was to fund a feasibility study. When I knew that it could become self-sufficient, I gave £10 million over five years.

One of the aims of the Shirley Foundation is to take risks that the government can’t because it is spending public money and has to account for every penny. If we can pioneer things the government will take up, that is fantastic.

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As ambassador for philanthropy, I took as my pledge to inspire the idea that giving is a pleasurable act of desire as well as compassion to help change or challenge any aspect of society by raising the bar on our capacity to be generous. The focus is not on tax incentives but on pleasure. Philanthropy is fun and you get a tremendous kick from giving.

When the OII was set up in 2001, some people still thought the internet was just a fad. The initial benefaction from Dame Stephanie was absolutely critical, as her endowment gave us income for the three professorships that are the core of the OII. Now we primarily support expansion of the OII through sponsored research and teaching that augments endowment.

The internet has made it very clear to most people that it is changing not only how we get information and communicate, but also what information we get and who we communicate with. It is reconfiguring what we know, who we know, what services we obtain, and what technologies we have access to.

We are also aware of the impact that the internet has on philanthropy, and held a conference with which Dame Stephanie was involved through her work as ambassador for philanthropy. Currently, 8 per cent of donation is done online, but what came out of the conference was much broader than that. During the Haiti disaster, people used the internet to organise what resources were needed, where, and how to bring them in. They were also often faster than the press in reporting what was happening. The role of the internet in orchestrating global voluntary activities in support of local needs is great.

Since our founding, Dame Stephanie has never missed a meeting of our advisory board and we keep in touch constantly. I cannot imagine a better benefactor; she never tells us what she thinks we should do or micromanage, but she provides us with good strategic advice, asks key questions, and shares her interest in the field and in ethics generally, which is extremely helpful.

Miller Philanthropy supports the Giver and the Gift: Generosity Heals Communities

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