#Cassat50: Juliet Valdinger, 2013

JVJuliet Valdinger studied MSc Grantmaking, Philanthropy and Social Investment, 2013. We chatted about her experiences for our continuing #Cassat50 series.

Why did you come to Cass?

My desire to get an MSc in Grantmaking, Philanthropy and Social Investment at Cass Business School came from fracturing my skull. Quite an unusual reason for most people (thankfully). But it was mine nevertheless.

Let me take you back to put that in context. I’ve been more than mildly obsessed with philanthropy since 2003. Before then, I didn’t really have much understanding of what ‘philanthropy’ actually was. My first job showed me how much impact high-profile people can have on society. I was persuading individuals ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Giorgio Armani to George Clooney and the King of Spain to get involved in a charity project. Quite an achievement you might say. Well, yes it was but it was because by getting them to support our project, they raised funds for the charity they already supported themselves. That was my first exposure to the power of philanthropy. If you’re interested check out www.whateverittakes.org.

I’d loved travelling through Africa on my gap year so then took myself off to South Africa. The aim was to go and do ‘good stuff’. However, a horse riding accident rather disrupted my plans.

In a nutshell, I was in hospital with a fractured skull and collapsed lung for two months, in rehab for three months and recovering at my mum’s house for four months before I was ready to go back to work. I received incredible support from family, friends and strangers during that year – and that has contributed massively to my commitment to philanthropy. Experiencing the direct, positive impact people can have on others’ lives, even if they don’t know them, reminded me about the power of philanthropy.

So what tipped you towards choosing your MSc?

My first job after the accident was working for a travel consultancy (not exactly charity work) and there was an opportunity to go to Rwanda. I’d always wanted to go, both to see the country and go gorilla tracking (both of which I highly recommend). However, it was one specific place there that re-ignited my determination to be part of the philanthropy world.

The Pears Foundation has funded a genocide memorial in Kigali, which I visited. It was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. It was not like reading about the genocide in the Sunday Times. The memorial is a tutorial for tourists to get an authentic reflection of what happened and showed me what funders with serious amounts of money can build.

After that visit, I wanted to follow that pathway and create something that has a positive impact on others. I wanted to find a millionaire and help build a school or hospital in Africa. Or something like that. I looked for months and months in 2008 (not a good year to job hunt) before I got a temp job at Macmillan Cancer Support on their grantmaking team. Cancer patients apply for grants to support them though difficulties they face in paying for things like heating costs, transport, etc. Their nurses are the intermediaries between the patients and Macmillan, which means Macmillan can remain more objective and not influenced in the decision about who does or doesn’t get the funding.

There was a day when a cancer patient who Macmillan hadn’t funded got through to me on the phone. And I understood why we needed the nurses to be the intermediaries. The patient had applied for £250 to cover his heating costs and it had been declined. He spent 20 agonising minutes on the phone telling me that he was going to die because we had not given him the money and that it was my fault. This experience showed me that giving away money is not always an easy process. There is so much more to philanthropy than that – and that building my school or hospital in Africa would not be straightforward.

So, discovering that there was an MSc in Grantmaking, Philanthropy and Social Investment at Cass Business School felt like someone had shone a light down on me. It taught me there are many sides of the dice in the philanthropy world: social investment, impact investment, social impact bonds, development bonds, standard grants and many more. The MSc changed my perceptions of the whole charitable sector. Although it was quite a mouthful to say, “I’m doing my MSc in Grantmaking, Philanthropy and Social Investment at the Cass Business School” it gave me the credibility and courage to march around London, meeting people at events, encouraging introductions or just cold emailing. I met so many people I would never have had the opportunity to meet if I hadn’t been doing the MSc. I have a folder packed with business cards as a result of those two years.

What was your experience of studying at Cass?

One of the key things which made the course so effective to me was that our lecturers were a perfect blend of academics and practitioners. Theory is important to build a structured and objective framework of thought, but too much of it and I’ll be snoring in the corner before you know it. The practitioners brought the theories to life and talked to us about applying them to their work on the ground. This provided us with a platform of discussion points about what works in practice and whether there were any holes left that still need to be filled.

I was so excited about this experience that I was nearly always the first person to ask a question in the lecture hall. I admit I’m not good with silences and there was so much to learn that I just couldn’t wait to get the conversations started. It was also great to sit there listening to all of the other questions which often provoked the lecturers with new thoughts. My interest and fascination was clearly noted (I think my excitement exhausted some lecturers) as when the Guardian got in touch with Cass asking to interview a student about the course, I think I might have been the first person they called. I never thought that someone would interview me – and certainly not such a big newspaper. But I agreed because I wanted to (and still do) encourage everyone to understand how this MSc is intellectually stimulating and provides an insight into the philanthropy world in a way nothing else does.

I crossed over from Macmillan to work for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation during the MSc. This job provided me with a deeper insight into the many facets of the philanthropy world and I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have been offered the job if I wasn’t in the middle of doing the course. I might never have done the course if I hadn’t fallen off a horse, fractured my skull, gone to Rwanda and visited the genocide memorial and worked at Macmillan on their grantmaking team.

It was the MSc at Cass that provided me with the knowledge, tools and contacts that allowed me to bring my interest in the philanthropy sector into reality. And I intend to use those in every stage of the rest of my career.