Getting Personal


An interview with Sally Wace

So, who wants to play a little game?  Let’s just imagine that you have enough money in the bank right now, to live comfortably. You and your spouse have worked hard in your life and you decide to sell the family business and are rewarded with a lump sum. What would you do with it? Buy a sports car? A yacht? Go on a round-the-world holiday? Or would you give it to someone less fortunate than yourselves? Be honest. Because honestly, I’d like to think that I would, but could I….? Really? Really?

The people that I’ve met that surround Devon Community Foundation all have one thing in common. They want to help. And Sally is no exception. I think it’s in her bones. Being a broadcast journalist as a health correspondent I’m guessing she wanted to expose any cases of injustice or wrongdoing and share occasions of joy and success. The same with her work as a magistrate, she wants to see improvements in our society. And also, with the hat on she comes to talk to me about today, since achieving some family wealth, by being a philanthropist.

Sally came to us as a donor in 2015. For her, it’s not just about handing us over some money. She says that she can see that other people may be too busy to enjoy the research and gain the insight that she does (she’s also one of our trustees) and that’s absolutely fine, and she laughs as she says she feels a bit of a nuisance because ‘she asks a lot of questions’ (she isn’t!), but it’s important to her to get answers.

Sally wants to know as much about the people behind the groups we support as she can. She finds them ‘humbling and inspiring’, she admits she couldn’t do what they do. And I’m struggling to believe I could do what she does.

Can you tell me how your philanthropic journey started?

When my husband decided to sell his business, we knew that we’d have a bit of money and that we wanted to use philanthropically. We started to talk with our bank who had a philanthropy department, because I wanted someone who could do the due diligence, that could set things up legally and administratively. It occurred to me that although I had lots of contacts and information from my job as a health journalist in the South West, I still didn’t know how to find the beneficiaries, the people who were doing the good work, who would actually benefit from grants or any kind of fund or foundation that we set up, and I wasn’t convinced actually that the bank could do that. Despite the fact that I’d been a journalist for many years in the region I had not heard of Community Foundations and didn’t know what they did. It was only thanks to a conversation with our accountant and one quick Google and there you were! I had a meeting with Scott and thought,

this is the perfect vehicle, it does everything we want it to do. We just have to decide what we want to do with that fund or foundation and the Community Foundation do all the work and due diligence.

Did you know right away what causes you wanted to support?

All I really knew was that because of my work as a health correspondent, there were major shortcomings in provision of mental health care, particularly for young people. There was growing demand and yet the waiting times for any statutory help were getting longer and longer, and also you had to be increasingly, severely ill to access any help. Mental health and well-being was not something people tended to talk about, and despite the health service talking about, what they called it parity of esteem, the truth is that mental health is not given the same kind of budget as physical health, it’s much more difficult to access. I knew that was exactly what I wanted to spend our money on. I didn’t want to spread it so thinly that we wanted to try and do everything, obviously there are lots of deserving causes but that was one that I felt was really deserving.

Have you been able to find out about the work that some of the groups you’ve supported are doing?

Yes, one of our very first grants was a group that I actually told the Community Foundation about, called The Project in Axminster. I had done something on them for the BBC programme that I worked on and I was really impressed by the woman that who’d set it up. She is actually just my favourite model of the people who run these groups, really dynamic, really caring. She was a parent of a daughter who’d had mental health difficulties, had not been able to access statutory help, and so she thought ‘you know what? I’m going to set this up myself’. It provides a safe, social space for young people to get together and they can just sit and chat and have coffee, but they can also do cooking, crafts and so they learn skills, but also just meet other people. There are also very highly qualified therapists there who are just among the volunteers, and if ever the young people feel that they are ready to talk or get some sort of therapy then those people are right there on hand. We actually funded a specific project of theirs, which was the allotment, that just gave them another skill to offer their young people.

And I really like this, quite a lot of the groups that we’ve funded, it’s not necessarily sitting down and talking about their mental health problems. It’s finding a distraction or a diversion or a relaxing, unthreatening environment to either be with other people, or get some help or to just forget the difficulties that you’re facing.

So you are interested in the people behind the groups as well?

I am, yes. I’m always really interested to know about the background of the people, both in terms of their qualifications and their skills and how appropriate they are as a person to provide the service, but also ‘What made you do it? What was it? Was it a frustration with a lack of availability that made you think I’m just going to have to set this up myself?’ And quite often it’s that sort of dynamism, empathy and caring that actually does make somebody realise that there is a gap, and set about filling it. I don’t want to be meddlesome; I want to trust people if they are the right people to do it.

I certainly would not be able to do what these people do, the people that run these groups, I know that I couldn’t do it. And I’m so grateful and appreciative of the people who do take it on, working sometimes with really damaged people, who’ve got difficult stories and backgrounds and so very special kinds of people are needed with really particular skills and qualifications and experience themselves, to be able to help those people.

And has the focus of your giving changed at all?

Quite a big move in the last couple of years has been to young offenders. Since I’ve become a magistrate, it’s been something that I’m really well aware of, how generally speaking, offenders start off with quite a lot of disadvantage and deprivation in their lives anyway, and so if they’ve been in prison for example, then they are going to struggle even more, so that’s something that we really want to help. The other way in which our philanthropic journey developed was that it started off with someone just coming to you with a project, saying “it’s going to cost this much money” and asking “can you fund it”? But the more you learn, and the more you find out about the way groups operate, the more confidence you have in the people that you’re giving to, that you’re much more inclined to give to core costs and running costs, than say “actually no, we need to see a specific project we need to know exactly what you’ve spent the money on”.

Your husband and children on the panel for your fund. Is it important to you that they are involved?

They love the idea of having a fund, they’re really proud of it, they definitely want to be part of it and I hope that it will continue long after my husband and I aren’t around anymore. And it just makes them aware. I think they’ve got pretty good insight into social need through my job but I think it is just another way of bringing back to them that they are very lucky, that they’ve had advantages in their life, and to make them remember that not everybody has those advantages.

It’s just a way of feeling that we can do something. We can offer some kind of help to people who have some trouble in their lives, some difficulties to cope with that we don’t have.

Can you tell me about any particular high points of your philanthropic journey?

I think it is the group visits. Two of us went to visit a project, it couldn’t be any more than that, this is the group based in Axminster, and it was after we had given them the grant. A young woman of about 18 or 19 had been going along to this group for a year. She started off, for the first few sessions saying nothing, hadn’t exchanged any words with anyone, but she had kept coming. By the time we went along she was chatting, she was getting involved in the cooking and the discussion about current affairs that they were having, and she was about to start a college course and the people who knew her said they couldn’t have imagined her being in that position a year before.

It can be a slow process, but to see a group like that doing such fantastic work, and actually see the difference that it makes, you feel very grateful that you’ve been allowed to be a part of that, to help them.


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