Interview: Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley, one of the pioneering names in the IT industry, a leading philanthropist for 40 years, and in the Sunday Times Rich List for 10 years, pledged to give away 100% of her wealth more than 20 years ago.

The world's first ambassador for philanthropy

Dame Stephanie Shirley, one of the pioneering names in the IT industry, a leading philanthropist for 40 years, and in the Sunday Times Rich List for 10 years, pledged to give away 100% of her wealth more than 20 years ago.

"It's all being spent" she says. "I have ring-fenced a little to ensure my husband and I don't end up in penury. Everything in my will goes to charity".

The pioneer

Shirley has been a trail-blazer in many facets of her life, achieving an exceptional number of significant "firsts" for her generation. They include:

  • first female president of the British Computer Society (1989)
  • first female master of the Worship Company of Information Technologists (1992)
  • first non-American on the board of directors of Tandem Computers (1992)
  • first outside non-executive director of the John Lewis Partnership (1991).

Her work and philanthropy have resulted in a string of accolades, including the DBE (2000), OBE (1980), Presidential Pin (presented by President Reagan, 1995); her election to the US National Women's Hall of Fame (1995) and over a dozen honorary doctorates from UK universities.

Her approach to philanthropy is extraordinary. To date she has given 94% of her wealth away - a move that led to her exit from the Sunday Times Rich List in 2003. "I am proud to have given away enough to drop off the Rich List completely," she says. But this statement does not even begin to tell the story of the depth of generosity of this amazing woman over the past 40 years.

Unprecedented generosity

Shirley's philanthropy began in the early 1970s. She was chief executive of FI Group (now Xansa / Steria), a company she founded in the 1960s, and wanted to give something back, both to her employees and to society.

"Ironically, early on people thought I was the highest-paid director. I was not. I was actually building up a capital asset in my company, and not earning very much," she says.

"In the 1970s, I got the board of my company to agree to give 1% of pre-tax profits to charity. I also started looking at how to get my company into the hands of the workforce, and I took as my model the John Lewis Partnership."

"It was my intention to give 100%. In fact, I only achieved 24% of the shares into the hands of the workforce, at no cost to anyone but me." she says. "I am very proud of that. Giving away 24% in a publicly listed company is fantastic and people were astonished. It did protect the company from acquisitions for a long time."

This unprecedented act of generosity created over 70 millionaires in Xansa. "This was really, in a sense, my biggest ever gift, because it was so early on," she says.

The philanthropist

Shirley had a mission to be pioneering and strategic in the two areas she knew most about: IT and autism (she had an autistic son). In that respect, to date she has given 70% of her donations to autism and 30% to IT initiatives.

"About 6 years ago, we changed the mission to drop IT, because lots of people are investing in that space, whereas in autism I am the prime funder for many things and feel I can make more difference there."

"I tend to give larger gifts because as a woman I do a lot of due diligence, which for smaller donations is not as cost-effective. However, I do give a lot of gifts at the 100k level, because a charity can do something really significant with that sort of money. But there are lots of people who give at that level, so I am more effective as an individual philanthropist to give at the million level."

She has contributed to over 70 projects of varying sizes, including supporting projects at 14 UK universities.

Dame Shirley's funding initiatives 

WCIT - 1998 £5m "I felt I was very lucky to have the opportunity to help make it one of the leading livery companies in the City of London."

Oxford Internet Institute - 2001 £10m "This helped launch the centre, and I helped secure a further £5m from the government." Based in Balliol College, Oxford, it is the world's first multi-disciplinary institute carrying out research and making policy recommendations on the effects of the internet on society.

Prior's Court School - 1998 £15m "I established a school for people with autism, formally opened by the Princess Royal in 2000." The first of its kind in the UK, and one of the most advanced in the world, it achieves a high success rate of leavers going into employment, and enjoying a social life plus a greater degree of independence.

Through her charity AUTISTICA - the largest UK charity raising funds for medical research - she has contributed to the International Autism Genome Project and funds the Brain Bank for Autism (to which she donated her son's brain).

"I usually fund infrastructure as no-one else does, because it is so hard. And charities have almost created a rod for their own backs by not stressing that need for good tactical and corporate management. Without that structure, it's no use just putting all the money into projects, as it never gets sustainable."

She funded a conference on the web in 1999 - Autism99. This was the first in the disability field and it led to a portal site called Autism Connect.

Supporting her peerset through acts of generosity, she commissioned portraits of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking for the Royal Society.

Investment of personal time and skills

As an entrepreneur, Shirley feels it is important to devote her time and expertise to the enterprises she supports. "I very rarely just write a cheque. All my donations have been accompanied by my involvement, and the commitment of my time and business skills, because I am an innovator, and most of the big gifts have been to charities that I have set up myself. So most of the input is from me.

"For example, the school for autism took five years of my life, completely dominating my dreams and waking life. With a five-year business plan, it ran to plan. I have not given them any further money. They are self-sustaining now and achieve future growth through fund-raising. I am a starter of things. I liked to get things off the ground. But they must be sustainable long after I have gone."

The UK record for philanthropy

People in the UK have a proud track record of giving their most valuable asset - their time. Nearly half the population, 26 million people, contribute in some manner or another as philanthropists. This makes the UK the most generous country in Europe and globally, second only to the US. Yet we do lag behind the US in public generosity - by more than 50%. In the UK the average donation is £225 per capita versus £600 per capita in the US. More significantly, the top 30 givers in the Sunday Times List contribute only 1.2% of their wealth compared to the US top givers who give as much as 13%. Is that something we can change?

"Britain has traditionally been a leader in philanthropy. We are number two. But it's also a cultural issue within the US - sometimes, not necessarily when you are wealthy, but as soon as you are comfortable and come out of poverty, you start joining a social group where philanthropy is involved.

"It seems to bite in a way that it doesn't here, for example, at fund-raising events here, people rarely bid above the market value of an auction item - they are always looking for a bargain. I think there is a lot to learn from the experiences of the US, where people genuinely have a sense of gratitude and giving back to society."

UK ambassador for philanthropy

Shirley is the first worldwide government-appointed Ambassador for Philanthropy - Gordon Brown announced her appointment in March 2009.

The Ambassador's Pledge

"I pledge to inspire the idea that giving is a
pleasurable act of desire and compassion to help,
change or challenge any aspect of society by raising
the bar on our capacity to be generous."

"I have been focusing on getting those who have more to actually give more, and then bringing new philanthropists in, so that it becomes a fellowship for philanthropists. My pledge is 'to inspire the idea that giving is a pleasurable act of desire and compassion to help, change or challenge any aspect of society by raising the bar on our capacity to be generous'."

She has created a network for donors and established a website - - designed to give philanthropists a voice.

"Its full of inspiring stories of philanthropists talking about why they give, how they started giving, what they get from it, the pleasure of giving and the mistakes that they've made. The average time people are staying on there is over 40 minutes", she says. "The website is being further developed to allow charities to add their own philanthropists' clips".

Part of her new role is to encourage researchers to study philanthropy and she has begun work to examine the legal and tax changes that could bring in extra billions in donations.

"I would also like to see more retail banks providing advice to philanthropists, so that the process becomes easier, faster and more tax efficient. I would like to see an entry on the Sunday Times Rich List of a proportion of wealth dispersed too. But I want to publicise the philanthropic success stories more. I want to make people feel good."

"When I started I did not want anyone to know how wealthy I was and I did not want anyone to know how much I was giving away, because I am already inundated. Now, one of the things I am trying to encourage is to get people away from this concept of 'The Brits don't talk about money'. That's something I want to change, by empowering others to emerge from anonymity and share their philanthropic experiences and motives."

Why does she give?

"When you give money away it's not lost, because somebody else has it, and it goes together with some sort of concept of an equitable life," she says. "Giving, in my case, has given significance to the money I have made. It's a life-style that uses one's entrepreneurial capacity in a different environment. I am enjoying learning to give away money wisely much more than all the time I spent making it and I love this now. It's the right thing to do, and giving makes me feel good. The more I give the richer my life seems to become. You get more when you give - always - and remembering that it's a pleasure to give, not a duty."

Shirley's legacy

I left my meeting with Dame Stephanie with the realisation that she is a truly remarkable and inspirational woman - modest, warm-hearted, gracious and sincere. A role-model for us all. As active as ever, and exuding energy and enthusiasm, she thoroughly loves being in a position to give and contribute to society.

As for her legacy - remembering her background as a six-year-old Jewish refugee in 1939, she says it is "To remember that my life was worth saving".

Yva Thakurdas is a management consultant, philanthropist and freelance writer.

This article is the first in an occasional series on IT Philanthropists.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, breaking down barriers for 50 years

  • Founding director and CEO of FI Group - later Xansa (1962-87)
  • First female president of the British Computer Society (1989)
  • First female master of the Worship Company of Information Technologists (1992)
  • First non-American on the board of directors of Tandem Computers (1992-2000)
  • First outside non-executive director of the John Lewis Partnership (1991-2002)
  • Established a groundbreaking school for autism in the UK (2000)
  • Helped launch the world's first Internet Institute in Oxford (2001)
  • One of the first to receive the Beacon Fellowship Prize (2003)
  • First government appointed Ambassador for Philanthropy globally (2009)

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