Since establishing his eponymous foundation in 2001, founder of Redrow Steve Morgan CBE has invested £300 million, supported over three million people… and learnt a lot. The emotive journey that led him to help those suffering from disability or disadvantage across North Wales, Merseyside and Cheshire is an inspiration, and his insight into the world of philanthropy explains why potential donors can and should ‘just do it’.
How did you begin your philanthropic work?
I first really got involved with Alder Hey hospital. At the time they were raising money to build a new oncology unit. At first, I gave directly to Alder Hey. Then we tried to establish a new Guinness World Record, walking from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast, across the Pyrenees. Although we achieved it in our target time, we didn’t get into the Guinness Book of Records because of a technicality. But we did raise £365,000.
Then, after I stepped out of Redrow in November 2000, I very quickly established the Foundation to give something back to society. It started off relatively slowly, but in the last few years it’s been growing exponentially.
You’re so busy! Have you found that you’ve had a bit more time to give to the Foundation since you retired last March?
It doesn’t feel like it. I am giving more time but not as much as I’d like as I am still massively busy with all sorts of projects. But the day it stops will be the day they lower me into the ground.
Did you start out with Alder Hey because it was specifically to do with children, or did the opportunity just arise and make you realise that giving back was something you wanted to do more of?
Someone approached me about it – I can’t remember who. And I had a tear in my eye hearing the children’s stories and seeing these young kids who had lost their hair. When I got there, a young boy – about five or six years old – had just died.
You’ve obviously got a lot of empathy – where do you think that comes from?
I think it’s in my nature. I have a reputation for being a tough businessman, and I was a tough kid, having grown up in a tough area. I went to nine different schools and you end up knowing how to look after yourself. It wasn’t an upbringing I’d wish on anybody, but it helped shape me as a person.
I’ve never forgotten my roots – where I came from and the fact that there are lots of people who aren’t as lucky as I’ve been. The kind of areas I grew up in had an unpleasant side. They were tough areas, but there are a lot of good people who live there. So I made it my mission to give something back to those people and to others, such as disadvantaged and disabled people who haven’t got the ability to help themselves.
It must be a good feeling?
I find it very rewarding to help people and give something back. We get so many thank-you letters each week, and I always like to read them because I know we’ve helped people change their lives – that’s one of our mottos, ‘changing lives’. I get a great sense of reward.
What has been your most memorable engagement with a charity or voluntary organisation?
That’s a really tough one. I’d be hard pressed to name just one. There’s a photograph of me in our office – from 1998, when I had a bit more hair! I’m with a young boy called George, about four years old, who was at Alder Hey: he’s wearing a pair of overs-sized hobnail boots, which were brought in for the photo shoot. As a result of the chemo treatment he had lost his hair.
The photograph was taken on the day we set off for the Pyrenees walk. Some of the children had come to the airport to say goodbye to us after a little tea party at Alder Hey. Before we left, a nurse pulled me to one side and told me that George would be lucky to be around when we finished our trip. On the second day of the walk, the four of us were trekking up the Pyrenees. It was a vile day: driving sleet and hail, right into our faces. We’d set off at 6am and by 6.30am we were completely soaked to the skin and absolutely frozen – it was relentless. By 10am we were feeling really sorry for ourselves. George got us through that day. Some of the other guys were saying, ‘We can’t do this!’ But we were doing it for George. We didn’t see him again. But for all the other Georges out there, that was probably the single greatest inspiration for me in setting up the Foundation.
Since then, we’ve done lots of things – it’s hard to know which to talk about. We go to lots of special needs schools and help children who are in great need. If we can get them a minibus and some disability equipment that changes their lives, it’s great. We throw a Christmas party each year for over 300 kids from disadvantaged areas: a lot them disabled, but you also see kids who have never been out of their neighbourhood before. Some of them have never seen grass, sheep, cows… Kids have come up to me saying, ‘That’s the best party I’ve ever been to in my life!’ It’s nice to be able to do that for people. I get inspired on virtually every charity visit I go to; I meet wonderful, selfless people who give up much of their own lives to help others. I find it very rewarding to be lucky enough to be in the position to help.
You remember George after all this time – it must have been a key moment for you?
Yes. I went to watch Liverpool in the FA Cup final in 2006 – which Liverpool won on penalties at the Millennium Stadium. I was in a pub in Cardiff and got a tap on the shoulder: ‘It’s Steve, isn’t it?’ It was George’s dad (also called George) – he had married a Liverpool girl and was there to support West Ham. He told me that he had been looking for me ever since to say thank you. ‘We lost George,’ he said, ‘but we’ll never forget what you did.’
What’s the most challenging part of running a charity foundation?
Believe it or not, our biggest challenge at the moment is spending the money we’ve got available wisely. It sounds daft, but it’s a major challenge. I put 10% of Redrow into the charity, which was over £240 million worth of shares. Since then, the shares have gone up, and we’ve sold quite a lot and reinvested it.
We are actually making more money than we’re spending at times. Which is a lovely problem to have, but it’s a problem. Finding the right causes is a challenge. We deliberately don’t give to national charities as there’s no end of charities out there where for every £1 given sometimes less than 25p goes to the front line, because it’s full of admin and all sorts of other costs. We want our funding to go to the front line – £1 in every £1 that we give going to where it is supposed to go to.
Moving on to your work with Cheshire Community Foundation, what is it like being part of something like the Positive Steps Social Prescribing Grants Programme, enabling healthcare professionals to refer people to voluntary and community sector organisations for advice and guidance or social activities such as gardening or art?
I would say 50% of the charities we support are involved in much the same thing, so it’s very much the core of what we do. Working with Cheshire Community Foundation is a good one-stop-shop – allowing us to get similar results but having our partners do some of the legwork! We’re looking to see great results out of it.
What would you say to other charity foundations or those thinking of setting one up who are struggling to spend their money but reluctant to pay for expertise and to have a lot of the admin and evaluation, due diligence, etc. done for them?
It’s a good question. If I wind the clock back to the early days of our Foundation, we made mistakes along the way. We gave grants to charities, which were great causes, but we didn’t do the due diligence.
We now do extensive due diligence on charities and only give to those that need it. So, those people who don’t want to pay for that due diligence risk giving – like I did at the beginning – to causes that don’t need it. We’ve very occasionally come across charities where there’s been fraud going on over the years; we’ve seen people abscond with money. If you just give to a cause without doing your homework first, it’s a lottery. Most of the time it’s fine, but sometimes it isn’t. I’m aware that Cheshire Community Foundation, also carry out similar scrutiny which is essential for us when partnering with them.
Cheshire Community Foundation carries out monitoring, too. When you’re involved with a charity, there must be a tendency to assume that everyone is upfront?
Most charities are run by salt-of-the-earth people, who are totally wedded to the role that they do, we see that time and time again. But there are exceptions out there and they are the ones you’ve got to watch out for.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into philanthropy, who might be thinking they’d like to give something back?
Just do it! You’ll never regret it. You have to be careful, that’s why working with a partner like Cheshire Community Foundation can be helpful because it’s too easy to make mistakes. It’s so easy to just give to charities and let them get on with it, but sometimes it doesn’t get to the core of the issue.
Do you think philanthropy needs to be approached like a well-run business?
Yes. And it’s time consuming – I understand people haven’t got the time or perhaps the knowledge. But I didn’t have the knowledge 19 years ago. You soon learn. Some people also like to be anonymous. As a foundation, we can’t be anonymous because we have to spread the word get people to come and find us. We used to be so low profile, but you soon realise that you’re never going to make a difference if people don’t know about you, so you have to raise your profile to find the right causes. You also need some big-hitting projects, like the Maggie’s Centres, which are £2–3 million each and JDRF, which funds Type 1 diabetes research. My stepson has Type 1, so finding a cure is very dear to my heart. We have donated well over £4m to them over the past two years. It’s not that I want to rip through the funds, but I want to get to the core of the issues to make a real difference. I think we’re getting a bit better known now, but we’re still probably the largest Foundation that nobody’s ever really heard of!
Is there a feeling that it’s great to be doing this?
Yes. It’s not like an end in its own right. But there’s a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that we’re making a difference to people’s lives. That’s important to me. I’ve been one of the lucky ones and it’s nice, having accumulated some wealth, to be able to distribute it back to those who have not been as lucky.
What you’re doing is amazing and inspiring
Thank you. It’s lovely to know you can make a difference. This is money that I’ve earned and put into the Foundation and I want to ensure that we are spending it responsibly and getting to the core of real issues. And it’s hard! But it’s a lovely problem to have!
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