Community Chest: John Holden on the Unusual Charitable Foundation That Has Made Britain a Better Place

By Holden, John | New Statesman (1996), April 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

Community Chest: John Holden on the Unusual Charitable Foundation That Has Made Britain a Better Place


Holden, John, New Statesman (1996)


The UK arm of the Portugal-based Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Without the Gulbenkian, as it is usually known, Britain would be a poorer place. The foundation has led the way in transforming many fields: the arts, social welfare, education and Anglo-Portuguese relations. The list of organisations that it has supported includes the Samaritans, Shelter, Voluntary Service Overseas, the Runnymede Trust and Snape Maltings. It has backed social entrepreneurs since before the phrase was invented, lending assistance to figures such as Lord Young of Dartington and Chad Varah, as well as the energetic community that transformed Coin Street on the South Bank in London in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Like most charitable bodies, the Gulbenkian has not always avoided controversy. In the 1980s, its oppositional stance in the face of government retrenchment over funding for the arts earned it as many critics as admirers. More recently, it was widely mocked in the press for lending its support to a campaign to ban smacking. However, for an organisation that has sought to play a pioneering role in bringing about social change, the criticism it has attracted has been small.

The foundation's money came from the legacy of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, an Armenian and naturalised British citizen who was also one of the 20th century's boldest art collectors. He was known as "Mr Five Per Cent", because the source of his immense wealth was a stake of that amount in the income of the Iraq Petroleum Company-although the foundation wisely diversified into a broad portfolio of assets early in its history.

Equally early on, the Gulbenkian adopted an approach that has become the model for arts funding and social enterprise. A team of experts is assembled, including on-the-ground practitioners as well as members of the great and the good. They investigate an issue, draw up a policy and publish a report which, very often, has an influence far beyond its immediate purpose. This method was applied at first to small-scale matters: in 1959, for example, when a committee led by Brigadier E T Williams addressed the question of what to do about "The needs of youth in Stevenage", its conclusion was that, rather than build a new youth club, it would be better to appoint a youth officer. ("Blokes are more important than bricks," as the report rightly said.) Shortly afterwards, the 1959 Bridges report, Help for the Arts, changed the face of the cultural industry in Britain, making it less metropolitan and less mandarin, and making space for the flowering that would distinguish the 1960s.

Other groundbreaking reports followed, addressing everything from community work to local broadcasting. Some, such as Ken Robinson's The Arts in Schools (1982) and John Myerscough's The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain (1988), are still required reading.

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