The Wolfson Foundation is an independent charity that awards grants to support and promote excellence in the fields of science, health, education and the arts & humanities. The funds are generated through an endowment. They have awarded over £800 million in grants since the establishment (£1.7 billion in real terms), supporting over 10,000 projects across the UK, all on the basis of expert peer review.
The Foundation is made up of twelve trustees, a small staff team in the London office and a wider network of advisors and reviewers.
The Wolfson Foundation was established in 1955. Sir Isaac Wolfson, his wife and their son, Leonard (later Lord Wolfson of Marylebone and Chairman between 1972 and 2010), were the charity's Founder Trustees.
The Foundation's investments were based on Great Universal Stores shares, which in 1955 had nearly 80 companies in the Group (including clothing and furniture manufacturers, retail chains and mail order businesses). The Foundation's assets were diversified in 1998.
By its 60th anniversary in 2015 over £800 million had been awarded in grants (£1.7 billion in real terms). Over 10,000 projects have been funded.
Grant-making priorities must and do adapt to changing circumstances, but many of the Foundation's underlying principles can be traced to the early years. While the Trust Deed was defined in broad terms, by 1960 the key areas for funding laid down by Trustees included medical research and health, education, and science and technology. These have, alongside investment in the arts and humanities, remained key areas since.
One of the initial aims was to create a Board of Trustees "of wide experience and enjoying public confidence." As well as the three founding family members, Trustees were appointed who were eminent academics, drawn from a variety of spheres. This balance of family members and academic experts has been maintained across the years.
Four particular factors have influenced grants since the start. First, Trustees have always aimed to back excellence (both existing and potential) usually by the provision of infrastructure through which it can flourish. Secondly, they have continually sought to identify and support important areas that are under-funded. Thirdly, applicants have been encouraged to use Wolfson funds as a catalyst, so that the Foundation's funding can lever additional support. Fourthly, suitable collaboration has been sought with other expert bodies.
In 1965,Trustees noted that a "marginal effect ... is all that charitable foundations can hope to make." Yet the Foundation has been involved at the centre of British culture for some sixty years and has had a profound impact on a number of projects and institutions. It is difficult to draw conclusions from such wide-ranging activities but the comment that Lord Dainton, a Wolfson Trustee, made in the 1980s surely remains true. "The 'money at the margins' often has an influence in enabling good ideas to bear fruit which is far greater than its sheer monetary value would suggest."