The Gospel of Philanthropy:
Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, a child of the kindertransport, brings her message of philanthropy to Israel
by Abigail Pickus
In the 1960s, a woman who called herself ‘Steve’ launched what would quickly become one of England’s preeminent software companies. While her success can no doubt be attributed to her ingenuity, affinity for math and business acumen, it was how she played in a man’s world by a woman’s rules – and won – that sets her apart from the rest. For until England’s 1975’s Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal, she had a strict policy of only employing what was then considered to be one of society’s weakest links: women with dependents.
“I had a mission, a crusade. I was a pathfinder for the professionalism of women, especially in the high-tech arena. If my life has a theme, it is the empowerment of women in the workforce and of people with disabilities,” said Shirley in a keynote address at a March 18th conference for nonprofit professionals in Jerusalem. (Shirley spent the week in Israel and also spoke at the Jewish Funders Network Conference in Tel Aviv.)
Today, at the age of 78, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley (a Dame is the female equivalent of a Knight, appointed by the Queen) has not only accrued a considerable fortune, she has reportedly given most of it away and in the meantime, has made it her mission to spread the gospel of philanthropy.
But her life has another, more weighty, theme that began in 1939 when, as Jewish girl growing up in Germany, her parents saved her life by sending her and her older sister on the kindertransport to England. “I learned a great deal in my very early life,” said Shirley. “I was five years old when my parents sent me as an unaccompanied refugee on the kindertransport from Vienna to England into the arms of strangers, thinking never to see me again in order to save me from the Nazi regime. I was stateless, penniless.”
As luck would have it, Shirley’s adopted parents, a childless Christian couple, were loving and ended up raising her, even though her birth parents did survive and eventually made their way to England after the war. (About this, Shirley will only say that she never bonded with her birth parents.)
Having endured so much at such a young age, Shirley made an early vow that has fuelled her throughout her life.
“I learned to deal with my survivor guilt, that irrational repression of having survived when so many millions died, by making each day count – by making my life worth saving,” she said.
“The number of the dead is not the sole measure of the Jewish tragedy,” she continued.
“There is the vast unhappiness that engulfs so many who escaped. If the depression that follows survivor guilt has any lesson, it is compassion. Helping others is one of the best treatments for it.”
It’s unclear whether Shirley talked about her early life before she went public as a philanthropist. But the story of how she was saved by the kindness of strangers – and a nation – is very much entwined with her message about the power of philanthropic giving. After retiring at the age of 60, she has set about giving away most of her estimated £150m wealth. The bulk of her charity, distributed through her family foundation, the Shirley Foundation, goes primarily to supporting those with autism.
Shirley and her physicist husband, Derek, had one child, Giles, who was autistic and who died at the age of 35.
In 2009, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown invited Shirley to become the UK Ambassador for Philanthropy, an unpaid and also unchartered position that she assumed with great passion. (She served in this position for a year as it was not renewed by the new Coalition government.)
“When I was invited by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to be the Ambassador for Philanthropy, I learned to speak out openly about my giving to encourage others to emerge from behind their cloak of anonymity,” she said. “I took this as my pledge to inspire the idea that giving is an act of pleasure as well as compassion.”
Although she is no longer officially the ambassador, she is still philanthropy’s most outspoken spokesperson, encouraging other countries to establish a similar ambassadorial position that befits their culture and needs. As of now, Bulgaria has signed on, Singapore is considering it and there are rumors that Israel is discussing tapping a local philanthropist to assume the post.
Outside of governmental channels, Israel has joined the bandwagon with resident Jonny Cline, Director of a nonprofit called UK Toremet, recently accepting the position of Director of Israel Operations for Ambassadors for Philanthropy, as appointed by Shirley.
“I wanted to do this to get more people in Israel aware of and invested in philanthropy,” Cline told eJP, adding that he is not a “typical” philanthropist in that he does not have a personal fortune to give away, but runs a grant-making organization that assists others in managing their own philanthropic portfolios, however small.
In fact, it was Cline’s invitation to Shirley to be the keynote for Amuta21c, the nonprofit conference he co-organized, that brought her to Israel for the first time.
For although born Jewish, Shirley was raised in the Christian faith of her adopted parents. While she does not deny her Jewishness, she also does not identify with it, instead calling herself “spiritual” and saying that she has no faith, but tries instead to be a “citizen of the world.”
Proclaiming Israel a beautiful country, and a “multi-cultural city holy to so many people,” Shirley nonetheless lamented publically about Israel’s noticeable lack of philanthropic giving.
“Israel is the largest beneficiary of Jewish giving in the world, yet only 38 in giving so the giving culture is only just starting to be established here,” she said.
Shirley is referring to the World Giving Index’s tally that places Israel 38 out of 153 states in terms of charitable giving, a strikingly low ranking considering Israel’s relative wealth.
Indeed, while Israel does have another culture of giving – Israel is often the first to offer medical aid and assistance when tragedy strikes across the world – its culture of philanthropic giving is strikingly low.
Shirley hopes to change that – not only in Israel, but across the world.
The website she launched in 2010, AmbassadorsForPhilanthropy.com, features videos of philanthropists taking openly about the “nuts and bolts of giving, their motives, emotions, problems and delights.” To borrow from the iconic 80’s American Hair Club for Men commercial, Shirley is not just the president – she’s also a client in that she has become one of its most vocal advocates.
“I felt if I was to do anything lasting it was to give philanthropists a voice to encourage them to talk about their giving so others would understand about why and how they give,” she said.
And through that, Shirley has also come face to face with the first part of her journey – one borne of tragedy that eventually gave birth to innovation and generosity.
“The more I give away, the richer my life seems to become,” said Shirley.