The late Lord Wolfson and family

All philanthropists want to see the money they give away spent wisely, but few can match the efforts of the Wolfson Foundation to make certain of it. This is not because the late Lord Wolfson and his family have been reluctant donors – since 1955, they have given away more than £1bn, at today’s prices, to a variety of causes in science, medicine, education and the arts. Rather, it is because the Wolfson Foundation is guided by a philosophy of wrapping its gifts in something even more valuable.

“When we put money in, it’s not just a cheque,” explains Paul Ramsbottom, the foundation’s chief executive. “We hope it’s also a stamp of excellence. We go through an extraordinarily rigorous assessment process, with a panel of independent experts, and only then do the trustees make a decision. The intention is that other funders will then feel that, if Wolfson have put money into something, they can be sure that it’s top quality.”

Besides being a wise and productive service, this philosophy is also grounded in the history of the Wolfson family, whose remarkable instinct for business made Great Universal Stores, at one time, the largest retail conglomerate in Europe. When the late Lord Wolfson died, in May this year, there was complete agreement among the obituarists about his shrewd eye for value and unshakable commitment to philanthropy. And today both qualities live on in his daughters Janet Wolfson de Botton, who is the foundation’s new chairman, and Laura Wolfson Townsley, who now chairs the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust.

“Lord Wolfson devoted huge amounts of his time and energy to the Foundation,” Ramsbottom remembers. “He was always questioning, always interrogating applicants for projects, really looking at every one of these grants as an investment that would reap a return, not to him personally, but to society as a whole.”

Historic Royal Palaces are just one of the many charities who have reason to be grateful for their grilling. “I have known Lord Wolfson since 2005 when he supported our project to restore and represent Kew Palace,” says Michael Day, the charity’s chief executive. “It was typical of the Wolfson family to support organisations and projects, as we were at the time, who were new to fundraising and who might have appeared, to the untrained eye, as ‘less attractive’ funding opportunities than others.”

Since that first encounter with the foundation, however – and no doubt partly because of it – Historic Royal Palaces have gathered many other donors. They have also received more Wolfson support for preservation work on the famous White Tower at the Tower of London. “Lord Wolfson was a great friend to us,” says Day, “championing projects as well as supporting them. His death was a great and sad loss to the arts and culture communities.”

This year, the foundation made its third, and largest ever investment with Historic Royal Palaces, supporting their ambitious plans for Kensington Palace. You do not need to ask if the money was well spent.