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History

The Wolfson Foundation was established in 1955. Sir Isaac Wolfson, his wife and their son, Leonard (later Lord Wolfson of Marylebone and Chairman between 1972 and 2010), were the charity’s Founder Trustees.

Background

The Foundation’s investments were based on Great Universal Stores shares, which in 1955 had nearly 80 companies in the Group (including clothing and furniture manufacturers, retail chains and mail order businesses). The Foundation’s assets were diversified in 1998.

Over £900 million (£1.9 billion in real terms) has been awarded in grants to more than 11,000 projects, from all over the UK. Recent examples range from Porthcurno in south-west Cornwall to the Shetland Islands. 

Continuing the tradition

Our priorities must and do adapt to changing circumstances. We attempt to be a dynamic organisation, constantly reviewing what we do – and how we do it. But our history is also important to us, and indeed many of the Foundation’s underlying principles and values can be traced to the early years. While the Trust Deed was defined in broad terms, by 1960 the key areas for funding laid down by Trustees included medical research and health, education, and science and technology. These have, alongside investment in the arts and humanities, remained key areas since.

One of the initial aims was to create a Board of Trustees “of wide experience and enjoying public confidence.” As well as the three founding family members, Trustees were appointed who were eminent academics, drawn from a variety of spheres. This balance of family members and independent (generally academic) experts has been maintained across the years.

Four recurrent themes

Four particular factors have influenced grants since the start. First, we have always aimed to set the highest standards, backing excellence (both existing and potential) usually by the provision of infrastructure through which it can flourish. Secondly, we have continually sought to identify important areas that are under-funded. Thirdly, we like to see Wolfson funds being used as a catalyst, so that the Foundation’s funding can lever additional support. Fourthly, we are collaborative – seeking fruitful partnerships with other funders or expert bodies in all of our areas of activity.

Some reflections

In 1965, a report from our Trustees modestly noted that a “marginal effect … is all that charitable foundations can hope to make.” Yet the Foundation has been involved at the centre of British culture since the 1950s and has had a profound influence on education, culture and science within the UK. It is difficult to draw conclusions from such wide-ranging activities (and impact is notoriously difficult to measure) but the comment that Lord Dainton, a Wolfson Trustee, made in the 1980s surely remains true. “The ‘money at the margins’ often has an influence in enabling good ideas to bear fruit which is far greater than its sheer monetary value would suggest.”

A published history of the Wolfson Foundation can be downloaded. Our historic archive is professionally managed by the Royal Society and is freely available to researchers.

Wolfson at 60

In 2015 the Wolfson Foundation celebrated 60 years of philanthropy. Our sixtieth anniversary was a chance to reflect on our history, and also on current trends in philanthropy through our anniversary lectures.

Highlights from History

A selection of highlights from the Wolfson Foundation’s history.