A philanthropic visionary

Sir Alec Reed on his latest project, The Big Give

Sir Alec Reed is an entrepreneurial philanthropist, using the skills honed during a lifetime of business success to benefit thousands of charities around the world. He was knighted in this year’s honours list for his services to business and charity. Sir Alec founded the Reed Recruitment Group in 1960 and has subsequently founded many charities, including the Reed Foundation, Ethiopiaid, and Women at Risk. His latest project is The Big Give, an online ‘virtual’ charity which has raised £20 million in just three years.

In December 2008, Sir Alec launched his pilot Challenge Fund by offering to match all online donations on thebiggive.org.uk, up to a total of £1million. The response was amazing and £1million was donated online in just 45minutes, benefiting 250 different charities. The average donation was £1,400 and £44,000 was raised every minute.

Since then, this original concept has evolved to give philanthropists the opportunity to leverage their donation several times over, rather than simple matching. A donation of £1m can now raise over £6m using this Challenge Funding model.

To celebrate their 50th Wedding Anniversary, Sir Alec suggested that instead of presents he and his wife sponsor children’s charities on The Big Give. The Challenge model then helped them quadruple this donation, making it even more valuable to those in need and encouraging thousands of new donors to give..

They were joined by a number of other sponsors, including Arts & Business and Candis Magazine who all chose different charitable sectors. In total, the 2010 Challenge raised over £9.5million and the model has been so succesful that Sir Alec has been approached by US charities wanting to implement it.

Sir Alec regularly speaks about The Big Give Matched Funding concept. It is a fantastic way to leverage donations, allowing those who may be seen as ‘financially obese’ to encourage donors of all levels to give with them, changing the lives of millions around the world.

BB: Do wealthy people have a sense of noblesse oblige or is philanthropy about feeling better about oneself?

AR: Both. Wealthy people know they are lucky. They are also aware that there is an unfair distribution of wealth across the world, we have a moral responsibility to help those less fortunate. “Financial obesity” is a very ugly quality, it is so much more attractive to give handsomely.

Those who run companies tend to be wealthy and well organised, meaning that they can transfer their entrepreneurial skills to philanthropic activities. I believe in approaching philanthropy as you would a career – it is certainly one of the most rewarding.

Is philanthropy different from charity and how?

It seems to me that the two are synonymous. There have always been trends in charitable giving and charitable activity and philanthropy appears to drive these trends.

How did the Reed Foundation begin?

The Reed Foundation was launched in 1985 when I sold a financial interest for £5million. Nowadays,18% of Reed Recruitment is owned by the Reed Foundation and the rest by the Reed family. In practice this means that all co-members of Reed Recruitment work one day a week for charity. It’s a fantastic way to tie together the goodwill of the company with the work of the Foundation. I also founded both Womankind Worldwide and Women at Risk I focused on women as, in the course of my career, I have generally found women to be more charitable than men!

‘We hope to change the concept of giving from being something
reactive to proactive.’

Ethiopiaid was founded after I visited Ethiopia in the 1980s. I was shocked by the poverty and the lack of awareness and was fortunate to be in a position to help. We set up Ethiopiaid with £1million and have since sent over £20million to Ethiopia. Then, at a lunch meeting a few years ago, someone happened to mention I should start a virtual charity. This was the ‘lightbulb moment’ which led to the foundation of theBigGive.org.uk. The website is a place where philanthropists can proactively find charities in their area of interest – I have never liked being hassled by fundraisers!

When The Big Give was founded in 2007, it was designed for potential wealthy philanthropists looking to make donations between £100,000 and £10m. However, starting a charity is rather like starting a company and akin to working with plasticine – it evolves and is never what you originally thought it would be. Now the site accepts all donations over £5 and allows everyone to experience ‘giving like a philanthropist’.

Define the entrepreneurial mindset

I left school at 16 and built up Reed Recruitment from a single shop agency to the the national brand that it is today. The entrepreneur’s mindset is based on ideas, whereas the academic mindset is based on knowledge. Entrepreneurs don’t make good academics and vice versa.

Does luck play an important part in success?

Success is predicated on a number of factors but at its simplest, it is an equation between good ideas and luck. If you are lucky to have been born with an entrepreneurial gene and have innovative ideas, success is inevitable.

What is the most important change in society in your lifetime?

Without a doubt, digitalisation. It has completely revolutionised every aspect of our lives, from the way business is run and the way we give to charity, to the way we keep in touch with friends and family. Everything can be done so quickly, almost in real time, which gives an exciting sense of connection with a cause – particularly beneficial in the world of charity.