Sarah Butler-Sloss


Sarah Butler-Sloss is an internationally-recognised leader in the field of green energy and sustainable development. She and her husband established the Ashden Trust in 1989, which is one of the 18 charitable trusts and foundations established by members of the Sainsbury family. In 2001, she launched the Ashden Awards, which recognise and support those working on sustainable energy initiatives.

How did your philanthropy begin?

My philanthropy began when I was in my late 20s. I came into some money from my family [the Sainsbury family], which has a great history of giving. My father and his brothers and cousin had set up a system of running separate charitable trusts from one shared office with a great team of staff. So there was an opportunity to use the family office to start my small foundation and get support from people who were expert at giving money to good causes.

I inherited the money in the same year that I got married, so my husband and I set up the Ashden Trust together to support our interests and passions.

I’m a great lover of the natural world, it has always been a passion of mine and I studied zoology at university. When I was about 14, I had a wonderful headmistress who used to give me one-to-one lessons. She knew that I was interested in science, and I vividly remember her explaining the science of global warming and climate change. She was very passionate and she put it to me so logically: ‘We're cutting down too many trees and burning too much fossil fuel which is adding all these CO2 emissions into the atmosphere that create a greenhouse effect.’ I remember thinking, ‘surely the adult word can sort it out’ and it took me over ten years to realise that nothing significant was happening.

I took a year off before going to university and spent this travelling around India. That was an amazing, eye-opening experience and it has influenced me ever since. India was another world: in slums and rural areas people were cooking on open fires, getting their water from the river and their light was usually a kerosene lantern or candle as they had no electricity. I’d never seen that before or contemplated that people lived like that. We hear a lot about the big disasters that affect poor countries, but we don’t hear much about the everyday stuff, or we certainly didn’t back in the 1980s . It was a real eye opener to learn that people’s everyday lives are so harsh, even when they’re not experiencing a disaster. So the seeds of my philanthropic interests were planted long before I had the opportunity to set up a charitable trust. 


Giving an award is very different to giving a grant. It can achieve more, but to do it well takes a huge amount of work.

How did you decide what causes to focus on?

The areas we fund have evolved over time, but from the outset our twin focus has been on the environment and on people at the bottom of the pyramid, whether in the UK or overseas. We try and bring these issues together as much as possible because I believe development needs to be sustainable in the widest sense of the term. Yes, you do have to give people food in emergencies, but I was most interested in finding sustainable solutions to the everyday problems experienced by those living in poverty. To find better ways to grow food or access energy, to help in ways that enable people to help themselves.

In my mid-20s I had to take a break from work for health reasons, so I started reading more about the environment and suddenly everything started to fall into place. Seeing the environment being gradually destroyed, and learning more about what was happening from people like David Attenborough, Rachel Carson and Jonathon Porritt made me want to do something, but also to focus on more than just the problems. I didn't want to just be shouting about what’s wrong and finger-wagging, I wanted to find and support the solutions.

When the Ashden Trust started, we only had about £50,000 a year to give out, so we began by supporting organisations like Practical Action (then called the Intermediate Technology Development Group) because we liked what they were doing. They didn't label themselves as ‘environmental’, but they were finding local, appropriate and sustainable solutions to poverty that also addressed the bigger environmental issues. I began to realise that energy was a key tool for helping people out of poverty and putting them on a path to sustainable development. Back in the early 1990s, I remember thinking it made sense for the developing countries to leapfrog the phase of using fossil fuel – if a community has got no energy now, why not give it sustainable energy so it doesn’t then need to back-track later? We decided to focus on this issue and over ten years we gave a lot of grants to support sustainable energy initiatives, largely in East Africa.

We learnt a huge amount, both from our mistakes and our successes. Overall though, this approach is a clear win-win-win. Bringing sustainable energy to people for the first time brings huge social improvements to their lives. It improves health, enables better education and enhances people’s quality or life. It increases their chance of having a secure livelihood and it helps the environment, both in their local area by avoiding deforestation, for example, and on a global scale by reducing CO2 emissions . It was a clear no-brainer, in my mind. But no one else was doing it successfully at that stage and I wanted to spread the word.

What motivated you to shift your focus from grants to awards?

We’d been giving grants for ten years but hadn’t managed to raise awareness of the issues we were working on. Then I happened to meet someone socially at a dinner party, called Ed Whitley, who runs the Whitley Awards, which recognises innovative wildlife conservation leaders. We were talking about what we both do in this area and he said ‘why don’t you do an award for sustainable energy with us?’. So we decided to try it out and found we could achieve more by making an award than giving a grant.

After ten years of giving grants, nothing big had changed; we’d funded pilot programmes that carried on but hadn’t grown significantly due to lack of further funds and so had a limited impact, but few were talking about sustainable energy in the international development context and  few were doing much about it. The first winner of our award was a Rwandan who had designed and was selling a fantastic energy-efficient cooking stove. He came to the UK to receive his award from Princess Anne and when he went home he was a national hero – front page news! The President of Rwanda met him off his plane and I thought: ‘Wow! I’ve been giving grants for a decade and we’ve never had this reaction!’

The same happened the following year – the Indian winner was inundated with journalists wanting to hear his story. So at this stage I started talking to members of my family and asking them to join in. I persuaded two of my cousins and my two brothers to fund an award each. We couldn’t have four awards within the Whitley scheme, so we started our own scheme in 2003.

In 2004, the Ashden Awards was established as a separate charity with its own board of trustees. It now receives 50% of its funding from Sainsbury family trusts and 50% from other trusts and foundations, corporates and government organisations.  After a few years, we learnt that receiving an award could catapult winners up to the next stage of growth, but after that point some thrived and some didn’t. So to help them reach their potential, our award scheme has developed so that it now includes a support programme and an alumni network which provides a whole package of support, from mentoring, technical and business support to introductions to potential investors. We also run programmes that help spread the knowledge and expertise of our winners to encourage their replication.

Giving an award is very different to giving a grant, it’s a totally different ball-game. I believe the awards model works, but to do it well takes a huge amount of work. You have to be really sure you’re picking the best winners. If you’re putting people on a pedestal and giving them lots of publicity, you’ve got to be absolutely sure that they are the leaders and pioneers in the sector and that they really have the potential to grow and deliver.


The best experiences have been when I've rolled up my sleeves and got really involved.

What have been your best experiences as a philanthropist?

The best experiences have been when I’ve rolled up my sleeves and got really involved, including being the Founder Director of Ashden (formerly the Ashden Awards), so that I understand what we’re funding and why it works. Grant-making can be very exciting when something you fund takes off. For example, we've recently funded Carbon Tracker, which highlights unviable financial investments in fossil fuel companies. We supported them from their earliest days and it’s amazing the influence they are having on governments across the globe, business and in the press. It's a huge privilege to work with and support people who are so bright and brilliant, and to be able to help link them up with others doing great work, to help join the dots. Making good grants that have a big impact is very exciting and it’s wonderful to see them take off.

How do you measure the impact of the grants you make?

I don’t believe there is a set formula for impact reporting. For individual grants, we just want to know that the recipients have put the money to good use, whether their work has been effective and what they’ve learnt.  We want to make sure we’re getting bang for our buck, but we understand that some things will be a slow burn and might take a long time and others might not succeed – and it’s important that we all learn from those. So our expectations differ on a case by case basis.

Also, there are other ways of monitoring the impact of funding than getting a report from the grantee; sometimes we can see the impact for ourselves or hear things on the grapevine or see coverage in the press. If a grantee has a high profile, like Carbon Tracker, then you might need less formal reporting. When we can see that something is clearly working, we might not require quite so much feedback from them. In other cases, where it’s not at all clear what is being achieved, then we might ask them to supply more information about their impact.

We also regularly review the overall impact and focus of our programmes and ask ourselves how our approach can be improved. For example, last year we reviewed our approach to social impact investing and, as a consequence, have set up an advisory board and prioritise Ashden Award winners. 

What advice would you give to other philanthropists?

I’ve learnt a huge amount in my time running the trust.  First, I think it’s important to focus on something that you’re really interested in so that you can properly understand the situation, so you can see where the fundable gaps are and be effective in your giving. Second, you’ve got to be really careful about what you give and how you give it. Big donors have a big responsibility to make sure they’re not creating any negative, unintended consequences. For example, they could hand out free fuel-efficient stoves and then find they’ve put local producers out of business. Third, I’ve learnt over time that it is really important to listen to the people on the ground who are doing good work. That’s also the philosophy behind the awards scheme – to reward and support people on the ground who are doing great things and to help them to flourish and thrive. It's wrong to come in and assume we know better than them, just because we’re from a more developed nation. We can provide advice and support to help them be more effective, but it would be wrong to think we can revolutionise their operation.

I would also advise that if you have a big enough operation then it is worth employing professional staff to help run the trust. It’s very useful to have someone in between the donor and the recipient, because you want to talk about the big vision, but you also need to know that everything stacks up. It helps to have someone else who can ask the difficult questions, like why the budget doesn’t add up. I think it’s very important that foundation staff have worked on the other side in a fundraising charity. For me, running the Ashden Awards gives me this other perspective which is enormously valuable. It’s not enough just to have studied grant-making. We look for staff who understand the sector we fund, who know a lot of the key players, have had experience on the charity/non-governmental organisation (NGO) side and can initiate ideas.

Two final pieces of advice I would share: to meet the leaders of the organisations you’re considering funding, to make sure that they are committed, visionary and practical in delivering their vision and that you can trust them to do what they say they are going to do; and to never think you know best and always listen to what's happening on the ground. Our failures have happened when we have not followed that advice!