John is now the Chairman of the Foundation, which has a capital endowment making grants of up to £3m a year. Before becoming a philanthropist, John says he was an activist. In his student days, he was a prison visitor and on his last university vacation joined the Washington, D.C. rally for Dr Martin Luther King, when Dr King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.
In the mid-sixties, John qualified as a solicitor and volunteered for the Poor Man’s Lawyer Scheme at the Katherine Low Settlement. He was also a member of the Council for Community Relations in Brixton.
John’s desire to make a difference has been influenced by spending twenty years as a magistrate in Croydon, where he “was in weekly contact with people at risk of falling off the fringes of society.”
His parents’ generation set the broad areas of interest for the Wates Foundation – tackling social deprivation, near the company’s base in South London. The wealth of the family is based on the Wates Construction and Housing Group.
However, the Foundation has always been kept very separate from the company. John explains the challenge this presented: “To some extent, that worked against us as we had an interest in the built environment and yet were slow in tapping into that area of family expertise. We now have a productive relationship with the Group’s Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy Committee.”
John also has his own personal Trust, and has also chaired the Visitors and Friends Committee at the local psychiatric hospital for 15 years. When the hospital closed, he set up a charity to take people into the community. John reflected: “I suppose that I am probably most proud of the development of our residents and our 100+ staff in developing new ways of helping people with mental health recover as full a life as possible.”
As well as money, John gives his time. He states categorically: “Money without experience and understanding is valueless. The power of ideas is as important as money.”
The Wates Foundation trustees insist on visiting projects. No application reaches the Committee without being visited by a trustee or grants committee member. This involves a substantial amount of time, but John insists: “This is how, over many years, we have built up a considerable knowledge of the sector and the people involved.”
He enjoys being part of a family of philanthropists. “It has been a pleasure to find how our generation have shared what might be described as a genetic pre-disposition to philanthropy and how united our thinking has been over many years. The challenge is to try to find a way of encouraging the next – much larger and more physically diverse – generation down the same pathway.”
In the short-term, the Wates Foundation hopes to fund organisations that are delivering high quality and imaginative work which will, in the longer-term, have an impact in delivering effective solutions and raising standards across the sector.
One of the biggest challenges for philanthropists, he says, is not to have the arrogance of “Mr. Moneybags” where everybody is nice to you because you are in a position of power. His years of experience in philanthropy have taught him three key lessons: maintain high professional standards; ensure a personal knowledge and passion about what you are funding; and surround yourself with effective staff. “The Wates Foundation has been very fortunate in this respect,” says John.
“Effective Philanthropy is a detailed business – due diligence needs to be done; grants monitored and evaluated; investment and finances very carefully controlled; regulators to be satisfied and a mass of ever-changing legislation to be mastered. I am afraid that only when all that is done professionally, with the help of good staff, can the individual and the trustees have the challenge and fun of trying to leave the world a better place.”