Trevor Pears


Trevor Pears CMG is a director of the William Pears Group, one of Britain’s largest property companies, run together with his brothers Mark and David. The business was founded in 1952 by their father and grandfather. Trevor is Executive Chair of the family’s charitable foundation, which is currently donating between £15-20m per annum. 

How did your philanthropy begin?

We set up a family foundation in the 1990s but we hadn’t done much with it. So in the year 2000 I decided, with my brothers’ agreement, to pull our giving together.  We needed a thought-through process and a sense of direction because we wanted to start making an impact on more challenging social issues, rather than simply being charitable, which I think is more about goodwill and helping others. I thought it would be enough to spend 10% of my time pulling together our historic grants and to think a little bit more about how to engage and expend between £3m to £5m. It took five years to hit that target and during the process I realised that I wanted to give this area an awful lot more of my thought and time, and as a family we wanted to increase our giving further. So again, with the consent and support of my brothers, I decided to make this my priority and now it is my full-time career to run the foundation effectively. 

What is the extent of your support for charities in donations worth £1m or more, including money banked in your foundation or given to a cause over an extended period?

We’ve cumulatively given around £100m since the foundation was established, but often the value of each gift is in the tens or hundreds of thousands. We consciously decided in the last three or four years to make a few larger capital gifts. The two biggest have been £5m each to the Royal Free Hospital for a new medical research institute and to the Imperial War Museum London for the renewal of their Holocaust galleries.

It’s actually quite hard to give a million pound revenue gift. There’s a slightly different thought process involved in making a revenue gift, which, for us, is usually for core costs. It’s capital gifts that tend to receive the bigger sums, but actually they can be a bit less satisfying and too transactional, because you’re more clearly getting something back. For example, it often involves some kind of naming, so the process is less comfortable for me and there’s more potential for misunderstanding.

Whether we give for capital or core costs, I believe there’s a lot beyond the money that we add, in terms of our thought process and engaging with organisations to help them do what they do better. We like to be more than just the money – the money’s obviously very important, but there’s something transactional about a capital grant, particularly if it’s not an organisation we’ve developed a relationship with. It feels more comfortable when we’ve known them for five or more years and there’s a good understanding on both sides. 

How do you decide which causes to support at this level? Have your favoured causes changed over time?

We don’t have favoured causes so much as a favoured way of working, which is about understanding, engagement and pursuing common aims. We’ve built up areas in which we have some expertise and knowledge, and that in turn has allowed us to expand our funding and partnerships with others in the areas where we have some strengths.

There’s nothing particularly personal behind our decisions; for example, a family illness leading us to support the Royal Free. We’re more guided by our own values, identity and what we think is important locally, nationally and internationally. We think that being a social activist is very important. Perhaps some people take the view that, “I pay my tax and that’s it”, but being a socially active citizen in positive ways is very important and central to what we do – it’s a commonality across a lot of organisations that we support. We want to encourage people – particularly young people – to develop their skills and confidence levels with the goal of being involved in society and making a positive contribution.

Is your philanthropy influenced by your family, your faith, your colleagues or any other external factors?

That’s both an easy and a hard question to answer. My two brothers – Mark and David –and I, were brought up with a sense of responsibility, engagement and being charitable. We didn’t really use the word ‘philanthropy’. So we’re trying to follow on our family tradition. We were also brought up within the Jewish faith, which continues to influence our values and giving. It all sounds pretty simple but putting it into practice can be complex!  


We want to encourage people – particularly young people – to develop their skills and confidence levels with the goal of being involved in society and making a positive contribution. 


How is your family involved in your philanthropy?

Our philanthropy is a family effort. It’s very important to me that it is crystal clear that I’m the middle of three brothers and I have their, and the family’s, full support. We always share responsibilities in what we do as a family and whilst I’m leading the charge on this, they are hugely supportive.

We haven’t worked through yet how we will engage the next generation. I’ve only just turned 51 and the next generation are still young, but those conversations are starting.

We are trying to instil the same values and sense of identity that I grew up with, and my children have all been involved with volunteering and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, so they are involved in a variety of age-appropriate ways.  I obviously hope they will want to follow in the family footsteps, but you also want your children to make their own mark.

How does it feel to be able to offer this level of support?

This is my career, but I still get a sense of pleasure, pride and privilege at being able to do these things. I do recognise how lucky I am, and I also feel the responsibility of it. Big grants come with substantial responsibility because sometimes we do things that will have effects on potentially millions of people. For example, the Imperial War Museum’s Lambeth site alone has 1.5m people coming through their door each year. Assisting them to continue or review what they’re doing involves affecting the experience of a lot of people, so we want to get it right. There can be a lot of soul searching, a lot of angst and sometimes some unnecessary aggravation.

What are your experiences and expectations of working with charities?

We have a terrific team of professionals who manage our grants and work in partnership with organisations that we have relationships with. These are words that are used quite a lot but we mean them. When I started out, there was a generally accepted model for ‘intelligent giving’ which involved a three-year funding cycle: in year 1 you give, let’s say, £100,000, year 2 you give £50,000, year 3 you give £25,000, and year 4 you’re out. That was supposed to be intelligent, sustainable funding because you’re out and the charity’s still going. But we now do the precise opposite to that. We’d probably start off with the £25,000 or £50,000 grant and then give more as the partnership develops. For example, we started off giving the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award £20,000 but we gradually increased our support over 13 or 14 years and we are now giving £350,000 a year. In fact, we’ve given them close to £2.5m in total. It’s interesting how that’s come about and it proves that we aren’t using terms like ‘relationships’ and ‘partnerships’ as jargon – we mean it.

Have you ever been particularly pleased with a donation?

There’s no one grant where I think “that’s the one”. But I can single out a particular kind of partnership that works the best – where there’s a long-term relationship, a good understanding that we contribute more than money, clarity about objectives and a shared commitment to learning, improving and sustainability.

But if I had to choose one grant, I’d say “whatever is the last one we made”! This is because at that moment that’s the one that gives me the pleasure, that’s the one we’ve thought through, come to a decision on and pushed the button at the end and said “yes”.  And you’re only as good as your last donation, like sportspeople say they’re only as good as their last match!

I certainly get more pleasure from grants when there’s a good relationship and a good understanding of what they’re trying to do and where they’re trying to go. It’s satisfying to be involved with helping to think things through and to shape a project, and to know we’ve had some impact beyond the financial contribution. I feel the sense of history and the sense of direction and achievement that’s involved with some grants and I get a lot of pleasure out of that.


I think Britain’s got a great opportunity to increase giving if there could be greater recognition of the value that philanthropy brings to supporting a more cohesive society.

What are your plans for developing your philanthropy in the future?

We find it’s always a learning curve, and expect that to continue. Our three word philosophy is: Commit, Learn, Refine. It’s not ‘learn’ first, it’s ‘commit’ first – you’ve got to decide, “I want to get more involved. I’m going to make a commitment of time as well as a commitment of money. I’m going to commit to going on a journey with this project or charity.” Once you do that, the learning comes. In my opinion you’ve got to be open-minded and willing to learn. My learning, and our team’s learning, is refined on a daily and weekly basis in terms of how we operate, who we work with and what we do. It’s a continually evolving process.

Do you have any advice for other people who have the capacity to give at this level?

The important thing is to just get on with it! You can navel-gaze and ask a million-and-one questions, but never get started. 

So I would say, “Get on the journey, make the commitment, go”. Also, it’s OK not to have all the answers at the beginning. My wife and I have made several holiday road trips with a rough idea of where we’re going to stop. The journey we go on is never the journey we expected, and some of the best and most exciting places we’ve found ourselves in were not the ones that I had researched in advance, but the roads that looked interesting, that we just pulled off down on the spur of the moment. It works better, it’s more exciting and it’s part of a learning process to get out there and risk going down that road and see where that leads you rather than trying to plan too much. I don’t think you can learn how to be effective in philanthropy by sitting behind a desk. You’ve got to get out and physically see and engage and feel and touch, and you’ll learn through what you see and do.

Are there any other thoughts on the experience of being a large-scale, transformational donor that you would like to share?

Firstly, and genuinely, we don’t think of ourselves as large-scale, transformational donors. The issues we’re looking at are rather substantial so we don’t perceive ourselves as large-scale. We actually think we’re small fish in a very big pond. We hope we’re transformational donors, but as an American donor advised me when I was starting out: “It’s hard to do good.” I’ve found that remarkably true. So others can judge if we are a transformational donor or not. We feel we are battling away to make small changes, and hopefully we’re being part of some things that are transforming for the better over a period of time.

Secondly, and for the sake of being a bit more controversial, I do think some people approach their giving with a sense of in-built knowledge. They think they already know the answers to quite a lot of things, and that comes from being successful in their commercial career. So they expect to get everything right from the start. But most entrepreneurs and business people say it’s the ‘mistakes’, as well as the wins that led them to the success they’ve found in their commercial endeavours. In my opinion, the same is true with philanthropy. If something’s gone a bit awry I don’t necessarily view it as a mistake per se because you’re learning from those things. I worry about some of the concepts and language being used in philanthropy in the last few years, about measuring impact and social return on investment and so on. If we’re not careful, people will either stop completely for fear of getting it wrong, or only fund the lowest ‘risk’. I find the fear of failure in this area is very peculiar.

Finally, I think we need to remind ourselves about the important role that philanthropy has played over many years in so many British institutions – like hospitals, museums and universities – and encourage people to be pleased and proud to support their local, excellent institutions. I’m proud to be able to say we support the Royal Free Hospital, which dominates the skyline from my office window. There’s something missing when we think about Britain now as a giving nation, we’ve lost some of this sense of how these institutions came about and why they need our support. There is a lack of general awareness of the history of philanthropy and we need more thinking about the role of major giving. I think Britain’s got a great opportunity to increase giving if there could be greater recognition of the value that philanthropy brings to supporting a more cohesive society. People with high net worth and ‘million pound donors’ are a part of that society They have played, and will continue to play, a great role and this is the tradition that we would like to be a part of too!