Q&A with Louisa Brassey, Greenwood Place

Louisa Brassey is a Co-Founder at Greenwood Place where she focuses on helping families engage in philanthropic giving in an entrepreneurial and impactful manner. She is Chairman of her family foundation, and is on the advisory board of a high impact fund of funds.

Here, Charlotte Thorne interviews Louisa on her work supporting families with their philanthropic endeavours.

CT: What was your journey to founding Greenwood Place?

LB: Greenwood Place was founded out of the experience of setting up our own family foundation. We’d done sporadic philanthropy in the past, but not with a specific strategy behind it, so I decided to work with a couple of my siblings to try and create something more strategic and impactful; something that would take the foundation through to the next generation, and next century.

What I found in that process, was that there were plenty of options for advice - particularly from private banks with philanthropy arms - and there was no dearth of great ideas, but I would leave those meetings and end up thinking, how do I actually get this done? Then I met someone called Rebecca Eastmond, who had set up the philanthropy arm for JP Morgan, and found out that we shared the same frustrations. So, we decided to change the model; we knew that there were families out there who had the ambition to do this kind of work, but who lacked the time, energy, or expertise to do so themselves. What we created, was effectively a multi-family office for philanthropy, where we bring families together and act as the group executive management for their foundations. We started out with a small number of clients and have since grown to working with and supporting 16 families.

CT: When you say that the families you meet often lack the capacity to do this, what’s the most common reason for that?

LB: The main thing is time, we have a lot of people come to us and say that they’ll wait until they’ve retired, or the children have left school, or they’ve retired from a board position, and then they’ll have the time to sit down and think carefully about how they want to do this. They’re thoughtful people, but that’s half the problem, because they want to be able to do as thorough a job on philanthropy as they do everything else, and that takes a great deal of time and attention. It’s also a confidence issue, it’s about knowing that you have done enough due diligence to be able to give organisations unrestricted funding, and to be confident in your ability to make a difference. That’s often a main part of the education process for the people we meet; showing them that if you give in the right way, you can be far more impactful. Unrestricted funding to the right organisations allows them to make mistakes, to pivot and to innovate. Once people get to understand that, they get even more enthused about the work that we do.

CT: It’s interesting, there are parallels here with our own industry in due diligence and selecting managers, how do you help clients become confident in the organisations that you find for them?

LB: First of all, it’s a journey; some people who come to us will take six months to a year before being comfortable giving unrestricted funding. One of the examples we like to give is that of government funding; on paper a lot of these organisations look like they have giant revenues, say £20 to £30 million, but 80% of that might come from government funding and be highly restricted. Now what that means is that the grant has to be managed very carefully by an individual, and monitored and reported on. We’ve even seen an organisation have to turn down a restricted grant because they didn’t have the capacity to manage it. So once you begin to understand these nuances, you start to see how important it is to manage this in the right way, and how you can make a difference as an individual.

In terms of trust, that’s all in the due diligence. We have a team of six who are all experts in different fields, from people who have worked in smaller local organisations to large foundations on international grants, and we have freelancers in our key geographies as well. The key is in providing enough information for clients, in a succinct way, while having all of the detail underneath that is available should they need it.

What I’d also say is that our industry is very collaborative, if we’re looking at an organisation that another big foundation has funded, they are often more than happy to share their own due diligence. Now granted you can’t take someone else’s work as gospel, but there’s also no need to reinvent the wheel when you have access to experts doing this work all over the world.

CT: Where would you say families are in terms of wanting to have an impact, are they under greater pressure at the moment to do so?

LB: It’s multifaceted, they are definitely under pressure from the next generation. The standard rhetoric is that you see the younger generations wanting to put money into foundations while the older ones want to preserve capital, but its more nuanced than that. They’re seeing pressure from their operating businesses too, businesses are moving towards a point where you become uncompetitive or obsolete if you don’t understand environmental, social and governance issues, so often the families we work with start from that place and then end up looking outwards. It’s present on a broader social level as well, the phrase you hear at the moment is “purpose is the new luxury”, and people are willing to pay for it. I’ve just read Ronald Cohen’s new book Impact, and he goes one stage further by saying in future investments aren’t just going to be measured on risk/return, it’s going to be risk/return/impact. So our clients feel some pressure both commercially and socially, they know that this is the way that the world is going.

CT: Are there particular areas of interest for next gen philanthropists that you’re hearing a lot about?

LB: The obvious answer is climate and conservation, but what we try and do is not tell families that they need to focus on one area or issue. A lot of families come to us thinking that their funding will only be effective if it is narrowed down to a very specific issue, but we often say that it’s better to find something issue agnostic and more holistic. So for example our family is looking at community agency, working to fund organisations that help lift individuals out of poverty in a way that is sustainable. Another client we work with came up with a family mission statement called self-actualisation, where they want to focus on helping individuals live their best possible lives. Initially they said that they therefore wanted only to focus on education, but we broke it down into more basic needs like food and housing, with education as a key part of that. We really try and give people a portfolio that reflects their interests in the most effective and impactful way.

CT: I have to say that in the conversations we’re having with our clients and families, that environmental and social issues are increasingly a focus. It does seem like the noise around these issues has picked up in significantly in the last few years, and that’s evident in philanthropic work, but also in discussions around what goes into investment portfolios.

LB: Absolutely, the core of our work is grant making but there are plenty of ways beyond that to make a difference, and they can certainly be commercial. I think once people begin to understand that, they’re more likely to start incorporating elements of philanthropy into their broader lives, be it at work or through their investment portfolios. And when enough people start doing that, we might actually start to see real positive change.

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