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Leading a large UK grant maker and a small charity saving lives in Africa, Paul Ramsbottom OBE

Updated: Jan 29



Paul Ramsbottom OBE joins Purposely Podcast to share his leadership story.


Paul has been CEO of The Wolfson Foundation since 2007 and founding Chairman of Savannah Education Trust for almost two decades. We discuss the incredible contrast between the two organisations, one a large charitable foundation donating millions of pounds to good causes annually and the other a small effective charity saving young lives in West Africa on a limited annual budget of just over £200k. Paul is passionate about both organisations and wearing two hats , as a funder and fundraiser, has added to his knowledge and ability to understand the struggle for smaller charities who are reliant on funds for survival.


Established in 1955 Wolfson Foundation has now passed over £1 billion milestone in terms of grants awarded (over £2 billion in today’s money). The funds have gone to support and promote thousands of remarkable projects across virtually every community in the UK – and within education, science, medicine, heritage, humanities, the arts and health and disability. Paul also shares the fascinating story of the Wolfson family where their success in commerce led them to an impressive philanthropy journey


How did the Wolfson Foundation start?


‘It was set up by a man called Isaac Wolfson, whose family came to the UK as refugees to Victorian Scotland in the 1890s. Isaac Wilson was born into poverty and through kind of force of personality and sheer financial genius built up a huge retail empire called Great Universal Stores, he was obviously a man of vision, because when he set it up it wasn't particularly universal or great. One of the things they really pioneered was the catalogue shopping which boomed just after the Second World War. In a sense it was the internet shopping boom of that period, where every house could have a catalogue and people could order from the comfort of your armchair’

He looked at the society that had taken him and his family in and thought that he wanted to do something to give back philanthropically. In the 1950’S he set up the Wolfson Foundation and that is how it started and that was how the Foundation funds were generated and for the first sort of thirty to forty years of our existence we relied on Great Universal Stores but we're now a completely independent charity we have an endowment that's managed like any other endowment’


How would you characterise your organisations approach to giving?


‘One of the things that the foundation has tried to do and it is for others to judge whether we've done this successfully, is to do the giving very thoughtfully and build strong long term relationships with organizations. How do we make really good quality decisions, how we open ourselves up and be very transparent? We really root ourselves in the sectors that we work in and we try and do this with humility. Often an overused word but a really try to be very humble and grounded and rooted in the communities that we fund. So that that's been our philosophy that sits behind the statistics which can be a little bit overwhelming’




You are also founding Chairman of the Savannah Educational Trust?


Yes about 15 years ago, with a friend, I set up an organization working in West Africa based on our experiences of traveling out there and our engagement with local communities on the border between Burkina Faso and Ghana. Those communities are very rich socially rich but facing huge challenges in terms of poverty and crucially having no access at all to education. We got to know the communities and we said that we would try and create a community school that was sustainable in a single village, up there on the Borderlands of Northern Ghana, which was successfully built and provided the model that we then rolled out. There's a whole network of schools up in Northern Ghana now, which is Savannah, schools providing clean water and an education to kids.


You’ve made a real difference to people’s lives?


The most gratifying thing is to see a transformation, with just under one in four of the children dying before their fifth birthday to being completely transformed by the power of community action, working in partnership with the local church, the local government, and above all the parents and the community themselves and creating these lovely schools, which provide clean water a meal every day. We provide reasonable quality of education that's very relevant and pertinent to the local area with things like agricultural training for example. The transformative impact of that is even greater than I'd anticipated actually and despite the challenges of the last couple of years, you know, very different challenges to the challenges the work continues to grow and to flourish out there.





Paul Ramsbottom is also Chief Executive of the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust. Paul takes a wider interest in issues relating to philanthropy in the UK as a speaker and writer. He has undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in History from the University of Oxford.