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'In Conversation With' brings insight from social change leaders. We interview Caroline Mason, CEO of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Koreo Prize Judge.

In Conversation With

Caroline Mason, CEO at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Our Koreo Prize judges are some of the most inspirational trailblazers in their fields, so we're bringing you in-depth interviews as part of our 'In Conversation With' series to give you insight into their work, inspirations and views on the Koreo Prize.

caroline-mason_roundCaroline is the Chief Executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, one of the leading community grant making foundations in the UK. Before joining Esmée, Caroline was Chief Operating Officer at Big Society Capital and preceding that, Charity Bank.  Caroline was also the co-founder of Investing for Good, a social investment advisory firm and one of the first Community Interest Companies.

Before joining the social sector, Caroline had an eighteen-year track record of creative and innovative product development in the financial services sector.  With Reuters, she managed the global development of real-time news and television services and then pioneered the introduction of web technology products.  She also had her own consulting company, working with several financial institutions to develop new business and products including an electronic brokering service and a global wealth management business for a private bank. Caroline is a Board Member of EVPA (European Venture Philanthropy Association).  She is also a trustee of SafeLives, Impetus-PEF, and is on the advisory board of Big Society Capital.

Listen to Freya’s interview with Caroline below or read the transcript.

Listen to our interview with Caroline Mason

I wanted to reconnect what I knew back into something that was about ordinary people and the real economy and communities

Freya: We’re here with Caroline Mason, Chief Executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Thank you very much for having us in your office. Today we’re going to talk about the Koreo prize and do a further exploration of Caroline’s journey into the sector, how you got to this place, and how the prize resounds for you. So thank you very much for having us! Could you please give us a brief introduction of yourself?

Caroline: I am a linguist actually by education, so I did languages at university and then worked for Reuters for twelve years. When I left university, Reuters was a bit like the civil servant you got, you were taken and thrown into situations and jobs in quite an interesting way. When I think back now the responsibilities I had at a very young age were extraordinary, I did everything from running a technical software development group through to being the global product manager for Reuters News, looking at the Future of Web technologies for Reuters, core business, so a really mixed kind of bag.

I left Reuters because I started having children and I set up my own consultancy business working in financial services for about seven or eight years, taking something from idea to first sales. So somebody would say we need a new credit derivatives desk, I’d write the business plan, get it through the regulators, sort out the IT, build a system, and get it so that there was somebody sitting at a desk making money from it. I did that for all sorts of things in financial services, creating a wealth management business for a private bank, and all sorts of things.

Then I realised, back in about the year 2000, even then already it was really clear to me that financial services was not a great place to work in anymore and it just wasn’t me. So I left and co-founded Investing For Good, trying to use my skills in terms of financial services but for the social sector. Through that I learnt more about social investment, social enterprise, and then moved from there to Charity Bank, as Chief Operating Officer of Charity Bank, a retail regulated savings bank but was also a charity the same time, and then I worked at Big Society Capital and was employee number one or two and basically worked to set it up with the government, which is really interesting, and then came to Esmée which is my dream job actually, I absolutely love it!

Freya: What does the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation do?

Caroline: We are an independent grant maker and funder. We work in the areas of the arts, the environment and food, social justice, and children and young people. We have an annual grant making spend of about thirty-five, thirty-six million pounds and we also have a forty-five million pounds allocation to social investment. We invest about five or six million pounds a year into the sector in terms of either equity or debt. Our total funding is between forty and forty-two million pounds.

Freya: You mentioned that realised that the financial industry wasn’t really to your taste, or wasn’t a good place to be, so what drew you into more philanthropic work?

Caroline: I realised that financial services had become completely disconnected from its purpose, so you know there were these very complex mechanisms, financing mechanisms, very complex technology going in like robo-trading, limit setting, everything was very transactional – lots of money, but completely and utterly disconnected from what the implications were for. When those interactions happened, what then actually happened in the real economy? Did people lose jobs as a result of it? Did you know what would happen to communities?

My personal life had always been very much not from financial services, most of my friends didn’t work in financial services and my family doesn’t work in financial services or any form of corporate. So increasingly I wanted to reconnect what I knew back into something that was about ordinary people and the real economy and communities and so that’s why social investment first got me into the sector, because that was the bridge between purposeful investment using investment capital to positive purpose, and then from that it’s kind of gone into and encompassed philanthropy as well as social investment.


Freya: So you describe this as being the one thing you love doing. What do you take inspiration from on either a daily basis or on a wider lifetime-scale?

Caroline: It’s hugely humbling. I know I learn so much every single day, I mean there’s not a day that doesn’t go by when, because of the breaths of our funding I know a lot about hedgerows now how to put hedgerows out, which I didn’t know before, and mushrooms you know all the way through to, you know we do a lot of museums around how difficult it is for curation now and how cool good curation is all the way through to child sexual exploitation, FGM.

So a lot of preconceptions just get blown away by learning about the realities of all of these things, and how important they are, how important to people and also you meet extraordinary people doing extraordinary things on very small margins and they are utterly amazing. So it’s very humbling, you know you learn a lot, very humbling, but also intellectually it’s very exciting and what’s great about this also is that I get to still keep the financial services aspect of it because we have our endowment which is quite a big endowment so I sit on the investment committee for that. So I still keep that connection but then that’s also the bridge the sort of social investment, how do you make that more purposeful. So it kind of, it’s kind of like great. I am the luckiest person on the planet.

Freya: Can you tell us about a project or initiative that you’re currently excited about?

Caroline: I’ll give you an example of some of the stuff that that we do which I think is incredibly hopeful, which is in Durham there is a local charity that focuses on food. One for food security, but also food poverty, food and how it links into communities, and they realised that around Durham there are a lot of small sustainable farms and in and around Durham there were a lot of institutions, restaurants, event management firms that wanted to source their produce from sustainable, local sources, but there was no mechanism with which to do that. The economies of scale aren’t great for them, you’ve got to sign loads of contracts. So we’ve grant funded this Durham ‘food hub’ to create that market to manage those contracts and to facilitate all of that, but then what they’ve also done is connect with a local SME, which is a wholesaler specializing in the wholesale distribution of foods.

So the pilot worked really well and now we’ve funded them to go to the next level to scale it up into something. Now to me that just seems absolutely brilliant. It’s just so simple but actually, it means that you’ve got sustainable farmers having an access to market. You’ve got local restaurants being able to source things locally, the money and the benefits stay within the community. You’re also using existing SMEs which exist there. So if this works really well then maybe job creation. Those are the kind of things that we try and find work with which are hugely exciting and play to the strengths of each of those elements of the recipient community.


Freya: The Koreo Prize is based around these six goals and it’s looking at how we can translate the UN Global Goals into a UK context. So do you think that this translation is relevant for the UK and if so why? And then to move on from that, do you think that young people care about the Global Goals and know about them enough, maybe not within the UN’s context but more on a daily life basis?

Caroline: I think they are totally pertinent, they’re completely pertinent, and do I think young people understand this? I think they do, I think they understand this in a really fundamental way. In fact, I think they understand it better than most of the people that are actually responsible for the organisations trying to solve these problems. I say this point a lot, I sit in meetings talking about leadership or the future and I often say we’re the wrong people in this room. We are utterly the wrong people because we had it easy. I went to university, I didn’t have to pay for it. I would not have been able to go if I had my university ‘paid for’. I left university I got a job, so I could afford to put down a deposit on a flat and those were just things that were a given and if I look at it, I have four children – they’re aged between fourteen, and fifteen, and twenty-two – and I know for them that the chances of even being able to rent, or getting a job, or you know, the world is a very, very different place.

So I think they understand these things in a really, really direct way, in a way that most people in their forty’s, and fifty’s, and sixty’s just don’t, because they’ve never had to. So once we understand it intellectually or emotionally, we don’t, we’re not really faced with those issues. Whereas I think most young people are, you do see it.

I also think in terms of gender inequality, even if I look at the changes that have happened in my generation, when I first started work I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers in the office. I think of some of the things that I put up with when I was starting work, now my daughters would just think that’s completely inconceivable and they just wouldn’t accept it. So whilst we’ve come a long way, I still think we’ve got a huge way to go, but I think that what I’m really pleased to see is younger women are just very clear about how this is utterly, utterly unacceptable, whereas I didn’t really feel that – I kind of knew it was unacceptable but you kind of just ‘really? OK, I can’t wear trousers I’ll just wear my skirt’, whereas now those are the things that just wouldn’t happen, so I think I’m very hopeful.

Freya: Which of these issues would you say you feel strongest about or have most resonance for you?

Caroline: I’m going to say Gender Equality is one of them because I think the danger is that because advances have been made we sort of slip back into becoming quite comfortable about it, but when I see what’s happened over the last maybe ten to fifteen years I think we’re beginning to go backwards in terms of Gender Equality and that worries me. Also I think it’s extraordinary because it affects fifty percent of the population, how does this even happen and how can it be that fifty percent of the population get paid less than the other fifty percent, I mean it’s just mind boggling!

I think for us as a nation, I think community is going. If Brexit has shown us one thing it’s showing that we are breaking up, we are not a community as a nation and that trickles all the way down. I think that the fact that we don’t have a community spirit within our country from top to bottom has been totally revealed, and I think that the idea of community is a very strong one, and I don’t mean that in terms of place I mean that in terms of being a community of people and what that means and the give and take that that requires across the board. I think we’ve lost that and for me we need to regain that.

Freya: What drew you to becoming one of the Koreo judges?

Caroline: Because I think Rachel was just amazing. She’s just great, I’m a huge fan, and it’s a great idea and the freedom of it. I think you mentioned earlier that some of the people had said how great that it was just such an open canvas and so little of what happens now is truly an open canvas and you know a lot of these prizes, they’re quite constrained or quite prescriptive and I love the open canvas element of it, I think that’s really refreshing.

Freya: As a judge what would you be excited to see in the entries bearing in mind how open it is?

Caroline: Just excited to be doing it actually! Well, I think the combination of the judges is really interesting, and I think we’ll have really interesting debates about it. I love learning from things so for me seeing what comes out, and the invention, I’m sure they’ll be lots of invention and ingenuity out of it.

Also one of the things again, coming back to community, is this idea that we do somehow need to have a message of hope in some of these things and that’s what I’m really hoping that comes out of it, that this doesn’t kind of make us think so much about the problem, but how the future might look different and that there is hope, and that’s what I’m hoping to see out of it because I think we know what the problems are. I would love to see this to be a very hopeful thing. Exciting and hopeful that shows actually young people really, really will actually be better custodians of the future than we have been of the past.