Wellcome to the future

04 January 2017

Will one super big grant-maker change the UK charity landscape in the future?

The Wellcome Trust is the second largest charitable foundation in the world (behind The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). It dominates the UK grant-making trust and foundation landscape and the gap is set to get even bigger on current plans. At the end of last year (December, 2015) Wellcome Trust committed to giving away £1bn a year for the next five years. But it all began from very humble beginnings.

It’s a classic ‘rags to riches to philanthropy’ story. In 1880, the young Henry Wellcome, son of a poor farmer, emigrated to the UK from the American frontier with little more than £2,000 and a business plan for a pharmaceutical company. He had been working at his uncle’s drug store in America and later enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.

It soon became clear that Henry had a talent for two things: pharmacy and sales. With a like-minded friend, Silas Burroughs, he founded Burroughs, Wellcome and Company, which eventually merged with other companies to become GlaxoSmithKline. Their pioneering techniques included the first medicines ever produced in tablet form. Wellcome was also a pioneer in modern advertising techniques, such as branding and direct marketing.

Wellcome’s passion was the "art and science of healing throughout the ages", and he also became a voracious collector of objects relating to the history of medicine. At his death he owned more objects than many of Europe's most famous museums. Today, visitors to the Wellcome Building in central London can find these objects and more in the Wellcome Collection, the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at the University College London.

During his lifetime Sir Henry Wellcome began to fund a number of scientists working at the forefront of innovation and discovery in medicine and the life sciences. When he died in 1936, his will provided a considerable sum of money from the share capital of the company Wellcome Foundation for the creation of a charity to advance medical research and its history.

In the beginning the Trust's charitable spending was modest, totalling £1.2 million in the first 20 years. But as the Wellcome Foundation flourished, so the funds of the Trust also grew. By 1985 the Wellcome Foundation was worth £1 billion and its grant allocation increased to around £26.5m a year. Through various share sales of the now publicly floated Wellcome PLC in the 1980s and the mergers to become GlaxoSmithKline in 2000 the Wellcome Trust’s assets grew from £3.4bn in 1988 to £15bn in 2000. The average annual charitable spend also grew from £28m in the 1980s to £650m in 2007. Its size at this point pretty much guaranteed perpetual growth and by September 2016 Wellcome Trust’s investment portfolio was worth £20.9 billion.

The Wellcome Trust’s contribution to the UK grant-making landscape is so large that in most analyses of UK grants it are considered separately in order to avoid the massive skew it introduces. Wellcome’s spending in 2014/15 was more than ten times that of the next UK foundation and its grants made up one-quarter by value of the top 300 grant-making foundations, while its assets represented around one-third of the total.

The Wellcome Trust’s grant funding and direct charitable expenditure, 2012-2016

The large increase in Wellcome’s grant funding in 2015 reflects their (new) ambition to spend £5 billion over five years which is ‘artificially’ raising the tide of grant funding in the UK.

This increase in Wellcome’s grant-making contributed to the overall picture of UK grant-making recovering to near pre-recession levels (as I noted in a previous article for Insider). Without Wellcome, the picture would have been of a much more modest 6% rather than a 12% growth in grants between 2013/14 and 2014/15.

And this extra boost won’t be spread evenly over the range of causes supported by UK grant-makers. Wellcome’s focus on health, education and the arts means that these causes enjoy greater funding overall than others in the UK. Since recent analyses of grant-making to UK causes found that these three causes already top the tables in terms of grants, the Wellcome grants provide even greater skew in this regard.

Does this matter? Surely health, wellbeing and education are fundamental to a good life on earth, and without such vast sums being spent we could not hope for cures to some of the terrible diseases which blight our lives? The Wellcome Trust is the second largest non-governmental funder of medical research, without which many medical advances might not take place.

Wellcome’s passion and funding have, to date, helped scientists develop many cures, including: antitoxins for tetanus, diphtheria and gas gangrene; antihistamines, standardised insulin; the first leukaemia drug and immune system suppressants for organ transplants; acyclovir, which stops the herpes virus replicating, and AZT, the first drug approved to treat HIV. In 1990, the Wellcome Trust co-founded the Human Genome Project in which thousands of scientists around the world sequenced the three billion pieces of genetic information in human cells; and last year, the trust launched a multi-million pound emergency research programme into the ebola virus and co-funded the first trials of a vaccine in the UK. It has also launched a major new international review into drug resistant infections, particularly antibiotic resistance.

In a world where more impact is demanded, Wellcome’s big bucks are certainly creating a big bang. And as the Trust continues to grow it seems likely that it will leave other funders further behind and create a super-league of its own. That in itself shouldn’t cause too much concern as long as other causes continue to attract adequate funding. In the current environment, that remains to be seen.


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Cat Walker

Dr Cat Walker has worked in the UK voluntary sector for the last 17 years, including Charities Aid Foundation where she was Head of Research from 1999-2006, and Directory of Social Change where she was Head of STEAM (Sector Trends Evidence Analysis Metrics) from 2010-2015.

Cat now works as a freelance consultant and is the founder of The Researchery – a policy-focussed, strategic research surgery for those who want to get more out of data for evidence-led social change we can all believe in.

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