Rory and Elizabeth Brooks

RORY & ELIZABETH BROOKS

The Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Foundation provides support in the areas of poverty research, UK higher education,  social justice and contemporary art. In 2005 the Foundation became the principal benefactor of the Brooks World Poverty Institute.

Rory Brooks CBE, co-founder of private equity group MML Capital Partners, is Chairman of Manchester University’s Global Leadership Board, sits on the Board of the Centre for Social Justice and is an adviser to the Board of the Quintessentially Foundation. Elizabeth Brooks has chaired the Patrons’ Committee of the Tate, and is trustee of P3 (People, Potential and Possibilities), the social inclusion charity.

How did you first get involved in philanthropy?

Rory: “We went to work in the US when we were 24, and giving was very much a cultural thing. I joined a large bank where everybody had been to college in the US. They were passionate about their colleges, and to see that their college experience was such a vital part of their social capital made a big impact on us. Realising that contributing back to your alma mater was an integral part of that did profoundly impact the way we expressed our ‘re-contribution’ to society.

We were also both brought up in schools where Christianity was present. While we are not of faith, I don’t think you can go through a process like that without being  introduced to ‘faith, hope and charity’. I think that’s something a lot of people underestimate: many of the major religions have something at their core about compassion for humanity, and seeing oneself as part of a holistic society in which everybody has to help out. While it hasn’t been explicit in our dialogue about our own philanthropy, I think it must have entered the DNA somewhere.”

From that start in the US, how did things progress?

Elizabeth: “It really started when we came back to the UK, and it has been an evolutionary process from there. When our children became teenagers and started going out and socialising they would come back saying, ‘so and so has been mugged and had their phone stolen’. Seeing this, where we lived in West London, got me thinking about the discrepancy between our children and the kids who were mugging their friends or causing a problem in the community.

I got involved with a local charity that helps young people who come from difficult circumstances and get into a lot of trouble with gangs, violence, drugs and so forth. My involvement slowly increased to the point where I became a trustee, and I’m still a trustee today.

We also lived in Paris for a couple of years in the nineties, when our children were very young, and I had an opportunity to explore the visual arts. Somebody suggested that we became patrons of the Tate, which we did. I got quite drawn in to the point where I found myself chairing the Tate Patrons Committee for nearly four years. So I have an interest in philanthropy in the arts and I’m still reflecting on where that’s going to go now.”

What excited you about the arts?

Elizabeth: “I’m a visual person and, although I’m not a creator myself, I’ve always been interested in art and design, so that innate interest and knowledge developed pretty naturally. I think as far as Tate is concerned, they are at the top of the tree. They’re one of a handful of organisations globally who are leading the way in building collections, and opening the eyes of audiences to art and culture and how it can enrich people’s lives. They do that very well and it’s very compelling. London is our home, we’re both very fond of the city, and Tate has been a huge catalyst in helping to make London the cultural destination it has become.”

What do you see as the role of philanthropy in supporting arts and cultural institutions, compared to earned revenue, for example?

Elizabeth: “The arts have received unprecedented amounts of public money and funding from the National Lottery, but now of course the public purse has tightened. That’s a huge challenge for arts organisations that don’t have a big philanthropic circle around them. In London, we’re lucky that we’ve got a healthy hybrid of public and private funding – in a way we’re the envy of the world – but across the UK many small arts organisations are looking for ways to become sustainable and have some sort of commercial arm.”

Rory: “Having said all that, new arts organisations and buildings are being used as a focus for urban renewal. Look at Margate, Wakefield, or even the Whitworth in Manchester. It’s a changing use of the contemporary art scene.”

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Giving is about ‘enabling’, not ‘influencing’. This is a key distinction which needs to be well articulated. 

So as a philanthropist, the Tate is iconic and you have a local connection to it, but you could also make a difference in other places. How do you think about choices like that?

Elizabeth: “Well, of course there are many ways of coming at it and donors have to find out what feels right for them. I’ve just become a patron of the Art Fund which does a great job of supporting regional organisations. It runs a competition for Museum of the Year and the boost it gives to those institutions is extraordinary. At Tate, we’ve also supported a successful pilot for an international fellowship programme.”

Rory: “The fellowship programme was interesting because we put the money up on the explicit understanding that this was truly a pilot. It was risk philanthropy: there was no bad answer and Tate could easily have said, ‘it was ineffective, too difficult, we’re not going to do that again’. And that would have been fine with us, providing that the analysis was diligent and honest.

I think there’s a risk spectrum in philanthropy and I hugely admire people who give to things that actually might not work out at all. It speaks of a certain honesty between donor and recipient, but I don’t think that kind of transparency is universal. Beneficiaries are often a bit too cautious, and in fact I think as a recipient you’ll get more money for braver projects the more honest you are.”

What advice would you give to donors and charities to engender that honest conversation?

Rory: “I think both sides need to be explicit about what their objectives are. For the recipient, that includes the specifics of that particular request, and more broadly what they are seeking to achieve as an organisation. If an organisation has a clearly stated plan, can articulate it well and show measurable progress, then you can see how a particular funding request fits into the jigsaw and whether it has support throughout the organisation. And you’re looking for a clear statement about the degree of risk that is being taken, the likely outcomes, what success or failure would look like, and a demonstrable track record in good communication. Of course, I’ve just described an ideal – what ‘perfect’ looks like – and it’s actually a really tall order!”

Can you tell us more about your experiences and expectations of working with the organisations you support?

Rory: “Well, there are four organisations that we work with closely: The University of Manchester, Tate, P3 (the social inclusion charity) and The Centre for Social Justice. Guess what happened? Elizabeth ended up being Chairman of the Patrons of Tate and a trustee at P3. I’m Chairman of Manchester’s Global Leadership Board and on the board of The Centre for Social Justice. Obviously we have a lot of smaller causes that we make contributions to, but if we want to be material donors we tend to get quite heavily involved. We’re very clear, however, that we do this exclusively at the invitation of the organisation, and on the basis that giving is about ‘enabling’, not ‘influencing’. This is a key distinction which needs to be well articulated.”

Elizabeth: “It’s easy actually to lose sight of that when you become a trustee or take on another voluntary role, because you get drawn into any number of organisational issues which could take the focus away from why you got involved in the first place. The point is that it should always be about the beneficiaries.”

Rory: “What runs through all of this is that we have a huge amount of engagement, but only on the understanding that what we’re doing is helpful to the organisation. If we’re not helpful we don’t want to be there and you shouldn’t use us! With the Manchester Leadership Board I sit down every year with the Vice Chancellor and ask: ‘Is this what you want? Are we doing the right job? Am I the right person?’. Just because I’m a donor it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m the best chair, so we are rigorous about making sure that it’s contributory and we’re not a roadblock to the organisation.” 

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If you can say, ‘I’ve done something that’s good’, that is an extraordinarily privileged feeling.

How did your involvement with the University of Manchester first come about?

Rory:When I came back to the UK and started my own business I was contacted by one of my professors. By then Elizabeth and I were at a stage where, although we were very career- and family-focused, the business was clearly starting to generate a bit more than we needed for our daily comforts and the security of our family.

I felt it would be right to make some contribution, but I had no idea how to go about it. I think people underestimate just how opaque things can be for first-time givers. Probably the best decision we have taken in this field is to get some advice; we are hugely indebted to Bridget Fury who has been our advisor these last ten years. Then when the University said, ‘actually we’ve got an idea’, I thought, ‘well, here’s something that has presented itself as an outlet’.

The University had a lot of things going for it. It was a place I knew; it had unquestionably been a major contributing factor to my trajectory in life. And universities tend to be full of really bright people, which helps! I found myself discovering some of the social capital I never thought I would see. The Vice-Chancellor at the time, now the late Alan Gilbert, and his successor Dame Nancy Rothwell are on the short list of people who have inspired and influenced me most.

Another thing that universities are good at is large-scale, long-range work. At the time the two Manchester Universities merged, we were looking for a more substantial way to contribute. We wanted to get to grips with one of the really big core issues in the world, and ended up in a discussion about poverty. It became a game-changing moment for us.”

How did that focus on global poverty align with the broader themes of your philanthropy?

Rory: “We do a lot of things which are attempting to help the most disadvantaged in society. Elizabeth’s involvement with P3 is around the social exclusion of disadvantaged young people, and for me The Centre for Social Justice is the UK counterpart of the work at Manchester.

This focus comes without an ideological proposition attached; it comes from human nature. We live in a blessed country where we’re part of one of the most fortunate generations that has ever existed. We have long life, good health and good family. There are lots of people out there living lives you would not choose to live. How do you make a difference to that?

Everything evolves and we are probably looking at one or two new challenges over the next year or so. We do enjoy the journey. We love going and finding out and seeing what’s next.”

Are your children involved in your philanthropy?

Elizabeth: “We do talk about it and I think it has undoubtedly made an impression on them. While of course they have other priorities at the moment – they’ve got to get through their education and so forth – they’re both very aware. Our son very much wanted to get experience working in social enterprise in India, which he has done, and our daughter has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and worked in an HIV orphanage in South Africa. It would be a great surprise if they didn’t want to have some sort of philanthropic element to their lives”.

Rory: “The conversations aren’t about how much money we give, but are very much on the lines of, ‘What’s going on in the university? What are you trying to achieve? What issues are you facing?’. And as they become more adult they’re in a position to give us advice, which is very helpful! I think we’re not steering them to do something in this area, they’ve got to make their own path and find their own way.

The other issue is that we’ve now been conspicuously labelled as ‘philanthropists’, but we’re a bit distrustful of labels. I understand there are benefits to it, because you want to encourage others to give, but ‘philanthropy’ is actually a mindset about your relationship with your family, your community, your society and the planet at large. The point we want to convey to Amelia and Hugo is that they don’t have to have made a certain amount of money to be well-disposed towards helping others. We all need to make a contribution, so it’s really about whether you want to think benignly about your community and make a difference.”

What do you think is needed to grow and strengthen philanthropy in the UK?

Rory: “It’s distressing how the least well-off quartile of our generation is proportionately the most generous. Philanthropy in the UK is definitely in a better place than it was ten years ago, so the situation is far from hopeless! We’re on a very good trajectory, but we just need more people of means to give. I’m not entirely sure it can be done as a function of government policy though – it’s about word of mouth, getting the story out, moral persuasion.”

Elizabeth:It’s about a state of mind. I think it’s probably been well researched and established that even if the tax regime is changed to effect more giving, it doesn’t necessarily produce more giving. In the arts, for example, there are quite a lot of incentives, tax-wise, to gift your art to museums in your will. People don’t always understand them, or aren’t necessarily aware of them. We are told that in America the reason they all give so much is because of tax. I don’t think that is true. I think the Americans have a different mentality. If you’ve made money you’re a social outcast in the country club if you’re not seen to be giving, or assuming high-profile voluntary roles. It’s woven into the culture.”

Rory: “What else can be done? Quite often you hear people saying that schools should be doing this. I’m not a huge fan of education being a form of social engineering, and if teachers did everything they were told to they’d never teach English and arithmetic. But perhaps teaching children that having a 360 degree view of the world is better for society, and better for them, is a good way to go. And I think we need a bit more celebration of giving. One of the things that informs our philanthropy is to ask ourselves, ‘are we enjoying this?’.”

What do you enjoy about your philanthropy? What benefits does giving bring to you?

Elizabeth: “I think we all need a purpose. Particularly at our age and stage in life, if you have worked hard and been fortunate in life you can get seriously detached from what’s really going on in the world – even on the other side of the tracks in your own neighbourhood if you’re not careful.”

Rory: “That’s really important. We’ve been given a fantastic opportunity to engage with the world, in a different way. One of the things philanthropy does is change the way you think about yourself and society, and you start to interrogate the world differently. It asks you what’s important in your life. And what help do people need? It’s a valuable set of questions. It’s also a journey I hope never to complete. So from that point of view it’s immensely enriching. If you can say, ‘I’ve done something that’s good’, that is an extraordinarily privileged feeling.”