Fran Perrin

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A member of the Sainsbury family, Fran Perrin is a self-confessed geek and tech evangelist. She talks about the potential of mobile technologies in Africa and how tech entrepreneurs are re-imagining philanthropy.

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Fran Perrin is the Founder and Director of The Indigo Trust, one of the 18 Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts. The Trust focuses on the impact and potential of the Internet and mobile technology in African countries. Perrin has also been an advisor at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and is a Board Member for the Institute for Philanthropy. Last year, she co-founded, with her husband William, 360Giving, which aims to help grant-makers and philanthropists share data.

You set up The Indigo Trust back in 1999?

Yes, I inherited wealth and was very lucky to have that happen. At that age—I was 19, 20—you don’t really know what you are going to do in life, let alone in philanthropy, but there was a very strong family tradition that you give back. And I wanted to do that.

I spent a few years stumbling around not really knowing what I was doing. I don’t think that I funded anything regrettable, but it was very scattergun. No one was teaching me how to be a philanthropist. In the UK there is a bit of a sense that it is a gentleman’s hobby. You run a major corporation and in your spare time you do some philanthropy.

Or you get someone else to do it for you I suppose.

Exactly. In the family, though, there was a strong idea that you don’t outsource it; it should be a personal thing. But I just didn’t have the skill set. So, after a few years, I literally googled, ‘how to be a philanthropist’ and stumbled on something called the Philanthropy Workshop. There’s one here, one in New York and one in San Francisco and each year they take a group of about 10 donors through a three-week course. And the aim is to give you a toolkit and to help you find your strategy for giving.

The thing is to pick an area you know about and then you can be an informed donor. And I’m enough of a nerd that I love technology. I was an early adopter, I love the Internet, I was working on IT policy for the government. So I thought: ‘Is there a way I can use that knowledge to be better donor?’

And now you concentrate on the possibilities for the Internet and mobile technology in Africa. So, how long did it take before you knew that was what you wanted to concentrate on?

It took eight years to get there really.

And who are you partnering with now?

Increasingly we work with tech hubs—places where geeks come together and develop amazing projects in their own country. They have the right skills, but also the best sense of what the particular problems are in their country.

So you are really waiting for people to say, ‘we want to do this’ rather than telling them what they should be doing?

I really try to avoid wading in because the power imbalance when you’ve got the money to give is horrendous. If I go in waving a cheque and saying, ‘I’ve got this idea’, unsurprisingly people are going to say, ‘yeah, that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard! We would love to do that for you’. And that always goes wrong. So we always like to talk to people about what they are working on and what they would like to do and then support that.

You started 360Giving last year. Can you talk about that a little?

Yeah, we had been kicking the idea around for almost two years and it has really ramped up over the last year. I was on the board of a charity called Publish What You Fund, an advocacy group that pushed donor governments to publish where they were spending their development budgets. And that has been successful. So I said, couldn’t we do the same thing with philanthropy?

Some people say well why would anyone be interested in our data. Well, there are so many reasons that data is useful: for projects that want that funding; for academics who want to research philanthropy—there is very little data-driven research in the UK because there is very little data; or for other donors like me who want to know that you exist and I can pick up the phone and say: ‘You worked with that group, how was it? Or why did you pick that area?’ There are hundreds and hundreds of uses.

Another opinion piece we are running this month argues that a culture of philanthropy is not developing amongst the new ‘super rich’, or whatever tag we want to use. And that we need to reboot a Victorian idea of civic responsibility and the common good. Do you think that’s true?

The question I would put back is how do we know that there isn’t this culture developing? It has to be anecdotal at the moment because there is no data. One thing I have noticed is that people who have made their money through tech and digital might not seem to have the same culture around philanthropy, but they often have a really strong culture around civic activism and social change. There is this new generation that is very comfortable with the idea that you sign petitions online, you crowdfund projects. It is a different set of tools. That is where you see really exciting things happening, micro-financing tools, for instance. It might not look like philanthropy to a Carnegie, but it is a new way of interacting with the world.



[image 1] Afrikobs Internet Cafe in Kabale is a lifeline for entrepreneurial Ugandans. But with just six computers and a single modem, business can be slow. (Photo: Martin Storey)

[image 2] AppLab’s mobile banana disease application, funded by the Grameen Foundation, tackles the devastating problem of banana wilt. (Photo: Martin Storey)