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‘Wild card hire’, balancing legacy and a focus on the future, Sufina Ahmad

Sufina Ahmad MBE joins Purposely to share her story as Director at John Ellerman Foundation.

John Ellerman was a 20th century shipping magnate and was once the richest person in the United Kingdom. When he died, he left his £35 million fortune, (£1.5 billion in today’s terms) to his two children, John and Winifred. It was his son John who, despite his intense shyness and private demeanour, decided to create a vehicle through which to deliver more formalised philanthropic giving.

Following wildly different pursuits to his father, John Jr. was a renowned zoologist specialising in the study of rodents. He put a significant amount of money into trust in 1971, through the set up of three separate Trusts. John Jr. died two years later, however. The trusts did not carry the family name and were administered under the name The Moorgate Trusts by his wife and the corporate entity from which the wealth came.

Fast forward to today and the three trusts have been merged into a single entity - a charitable foundation named John Ellerman Foundation. The Trust Deed hasn’t changed much from inception but the look and feel of the Foundation most definitely has. Rather than being hidden away and private, it is in full view of the public. The Foundation has a website, celebrates its heritage, and favours an open brand of ‘relational philanthropy’ that may not have entirely suited its private founder.

Today, the Foundation is a charity led by a volunteer trustee board made up of qualified men and women who represent a cross sector of society. On a day-to-day basis the Foundation is run by a highly respected charity exponent Sufina Ahmad. Sufina, a young, thoughtful and innovative charity leader that is in many ways the antitheses of the shy founder. Instead, she is open and willing to share her journey and that of the Foundation. Growing up a Muslim and daughter of Pakistani immigrants she is fully aware that her selection as Director of a foundation was not predictable.

In 2019, a few months prior to the COVID pandemic, Sufina Ahmad beat off competition from over three hundred other candidates to land the role of Director of the Foundation.

‘The recruiter described me as a wild card, akin to a wildcard at Wimbledon, based on my race, age and gender. I was fortunate that the trustees were open to first time CEO’s or directors and bringing someone in who had potential rather than the exact same experience in another organisation’

While embracing the Foundation’s heritage, Sufina talks about ensuring its relevance and delivering impact through their support of modern-day issues and causes. Despite only being with the Foundation for coming up to three years, Sufina has led the development of the new strategy as well as a restructure of the organisation. She is continuing that theme of openness and a willingness to share the Foundation’s recent journey and approach.

Sufina credits the whole team for its efforts during COVID-19, they all, including the Trustees, played a crucial role in adapting their giving to the significant need at the time of crisis. Sufina’s own leadership through these tough times, alongside her wider work and commitment to charitable services, saw her awarded an MBE.

There were different points in various lockdowns, where I just had those moments of thinking, are we doing enough? Are we being effective enough? Are we doing the right thing at a time when there is no clear route map that tells you if you are. I look back now, and I think that we were affective during that time’

Sufina is positive about the Foundation’s future and her role in it.

‘There are lots of things making me smile right now, a new team and new structure and we are developing and evolving our approach to grant making through the different strategic strands of work. I can’t wait to get really stuck in and see where John Ellerman Foundation can go next.’


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