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Coutts Foundation - Million Pound Donors Report 2017

“No matter how good the reports are that we receive from the organisations we support, nothing beats meeting with the organisations and their leadership first hand.”

3 min read


The mission of the Coutts Foundation is to tackle the causes and consequences of poverty. The foundation draws on the legacy of Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of the most progressive Victorian philanthropists, and focuses on supporting organisations working with women and girls.

Lord Waldegrave, Chair of the Coutts Foundation, Peter Flavel and Linda Yueh, trustees, talk about how the foundation focuses on s upporting women and girls who disproportionally experience poverty and violence in the UK. They also outline the benefits of drawing on the expertise and experience of other funders and the award-winning Coutts Institute.

How did the work of the Coutts Foundation begin?

Lord Waldegrave: Coutts has a long association with philanthropy, dating back to the work of Angela Burdett-Coutts who inherited shares in the bank and was known as ‘Queen of the Poor’ for the work she did in the 19th century. She famously worked with Charles Dickens, a then client of Coutts, and they set up Urania Cottage together, a ‘Home for Fallen Women’, in 1847, which was very progressive at the time. She was made Baroness by Queen Victoria for her good work and has been an inspiration to many philanthropists.

Coutts has been supporting charities for many years, and the Coutts Foundation is an important example of our commitment to philanthropy.

Peter: I joined the board in 2016 after becoming Chief Executive of Coutts. It’s wonderful to lead an institution [Coutts] with such a rich and interesting history with Angela Burdett-Coutts. Our commitment to philanthropy illustrates how Coutts is more than a bank.

What is the focus of the foundation’s work and how did it evolve?

Lord Waldegrave: We realised early on that we needed to create a sharper focus as we are not a huge foundation and have limited resources. We therefore considered where we could add real value and decided to focus on supporting organisations that benefit women and girls.

We are focused on smaller, innovative, what you might call ‘socially entrepreneurial’ organisations that tackle issues such as violence against women and girls, mental health or homelessness. Often we are looking for organisations that spread their knowledge and are on the frontiers of work in the sector in England and Wales.

Linda: Women and girls disproportionally experience poverty and violence in the UK. This is particularly acute for women who face severe and multiple disadvantages, so the foundation is lending its support to such an important field.

Peter: We also fund a small number of organisations that relate to our broader mission. For example, we support the Connection, London’s busiest charity tackling homelessness, which is on the doorstep of Coutts in London. We also support the Living Wage Foundation to help grow the number of businesses that voluntarily sign up as accredited Living Wage Employers and pay a ‘real’ living wage to tackle in-work poverty.

Each year the staff of Coutts also nominate a charity of the year, which in 2017 is Coram, a charity that Thomas Coutts was involved with in the early 19th century. In addition to all the amazing staff fundraising, the foundation has also given Coram a grant.


“Our unrestricted grants have been used by organisations to secure firmer foundations for their future and in some cases scale up their operations by using the Coutts Foundation funding to attract other donors”
Linda Yueh

How do you go about identifying organisations to support?

Peter: The foundation is really proactive in its approach to grant-making. We want to carefully target the limited resources we have on supporting a relatively small number of organisations, so we don’t accept unsolicited proposals and instead proactively identify organisations to support. The award-winning philanthropy team at Coutts helps clients develop effective strategies. The foundation is fortunate to be able to draw on their expertise and networks, which they provide in a voluntary capacity.

Lord Waldegrave: When advising clients on their philanthropy strategies, Coutts encourage them to connect with other funders to learn from their experience and insights. So the Coutts Foundation does the same through its membership of networks such as the Corston Independent Funders Coalition, whose members also support women and girls. We’ve built up our knowledge of the sector so have a good feel for the landscape.

What kind of support do you give to charities?

Linda: We provide what is often crucial, unrestricted funding over a three-year time horizon that allows charities to fund core personnel and central operations that are not tied to specific projects. This type of funding is often lacking for charities. As such, we pay a great deal of attention to the governance and leadership, including succession, of the charities that we support. Our unrestricted grants have been used by organisations to secure firmer foundations for their future and in some cases scale up their operations by using the Coutts Foundation funding to attract other donors.

Lord Waldegrave: We prefer not to tie too many strings to our grants and have a general principle of providing unrestricted funding. Of course, we seek feedback on progress and at trustee meetings hear directly from the organisations we support. Many of the organisations we support don’t always find it easy to fundraise for their work.

We’re also proud to be an accredited Living Wage Friendly Funder to help tackle low pay in the charitable sector.

Peter: Our view is that the organisations we support are best placed to work out how best to use the funds we provide. Importantly though, our support is not just about giving money. We also look for opportunities for Coutts staff to volunteer, as is the case with the Connection where staff serve meals, run CV workshops and provide pro-bono expertise.


“Find a passion and a focus. Draw on the advice of specialist advisers in the field of philanthropy and on the experience of other funders”
Peter Flavel

Is there a donation that you are especially excited about?

Peter: We’ve been supporting a number of women centres that help women in many aspects of their lives, including the Nelson Trust Women’s Centres in Gloucestershire, Stockport Women’s Centre near Manchester, the Women’s Centre in Yorkshire, Anawim in Birmingham and Bawso in Cardiff. These centres are not only a safe space for women, they help them tackle issues such as violence, poverty, homelessness, or sexual exploitation. While our focus is on women, some of the organisations we support also tackle similar issues faced by men and boys.

Lord Waldegrave: The Foundation recognises the importance of not just funding organisations that deliver services to women and girls, but that we also value organisations that are influencing policy, practice and public attitudes. The End Violence Against Women Coalition is a good example of this.

Linda: One of our earliest grants was to UnLtd to support a ‘Solutions for an Ageing Society’ programme. I met a number of UnLtd’s awardees who are so inventive in their application of business models to address a social challenge, including services to improve older people’s health and wellbeing in care homes. Since our support, UnLtd’s work in this field has completely taken off.

What is your attitude towards risk?

Lord Waldegrave: We are certainly open to taking informed risks with our philanthropy and are conscious that on occasion things might not work out as we had anticipated.

Linda: We are aware of the challenges many charities face, particularly smaller organisations. Many of the organisations we support are vulnerable to cuts in funding and are having to make tough choices about how they focus their resources.

What have been your key lessons learned?

Peter: I think supporting fewer organisations in a more meaningful way was an important decision. That way, in addition to providing funding we can look to engage Coutts staff.

Lord Waldegrave: No matter how good the reports are that we receive from the organisations we support, nothing beats meeting with the organisations and their leadership first hand. We appreciate open and honest dialogue with the organisations we support and are as interested in understanding the challenges they face as well as their successes. Like with all enterprises, we appreciate that things don’t always go to plan, so are happy to understand and support organisations through what may be difficult times.

Linda: By giving to a small number of organisations, we have got to know the work that they do first-hand. That allows us to be much more involved in the work of the charities that we support, which I have found to be rewarding and reassuring – and it allows us to better understand the complexities of the issues that they focus on.

What kind of advice would you give to someone who is embarking on their philanthropy journey?

Linda: Learn from, and perhaps collaborate, at least initially, with funders who have experience in your area of interest. Having worked with the team in the Coutts Institute, I have seen how they draw on insights from their extensive network of other funders who also support women and girls. It is reassuring.

Peter: Find a passion and a focus. Draw on the advice of specialist advisers in the field of philanthropy and on the experience of peer funders. Of course, given the work of the Coutts Institute, I would say this, but there is no question that the foundation and the clients of Coutts benefit hugely from thinking strategically and deploying their philanthropy effectively with insight from others, including peers and charities working on the ground.

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