Established in 2008 as a Scottish charity, The Blackford Trust has an unusual dual focus—philanthropic investing in Scotland and China. Native Scot Graham Thompson decided to form the Trust after receiving a legacy from his late father. The focus for the Trust came out of Mr. Thompson’s own firsthand experience living and working in China, as well as his father’s interests in the environment and landscape of Scotland. Graham is assisted by a board of four other trustees located in both countries.
So far Blackford Trust has invested in eight projects, five in China - Hands on Shanghai , Sunrise Library, The Library Project, the Pucheng County Women's Sustainable Development Association, and the rebuilding of a community center in a quake-damaged Sichuan village (the last jointly alongside a school from Edinburgh). Following the recent launch of their website, I spoke with Graham about the development of the Trust and what they’ve been up to so far.
Q. Can you elaborate on how you came up with the unique combination of
China and Scotland, as well as, your previous involvement with China?
A. The Scotland/China focus is simply because those are countries I know best! I happened to be in China when the idea came to me, but more seriously than that, I knew that both in my home country and China, there was need. Different kinds of need but need in both places. And I knew there was quite a bit of interest in China on the Scottish level.
I suppose it could be
replicated in other pairs of countries but it might be rather easier for a
small country like Scotland to do it for China. Scotland has the benefit that
it is a unique legal entity in several senses, and also overseas, Scotland has
a brand image that is a relatively positive one.
As a side note, our logo—the character 渡 (du) which is ford (where you cross a river). But I also noticed that one dictionary gives the meaning as “to tide over a difficulty”, which I thought was nice and appropriate for what we’re trying to do.
Q. How did you end up in China?
A. My professional background is a mix of media and government. I was a freelance journalist in Scotland, and then joined the UK civil service as a press officer, and worked in government for about 12 years. In 2002, I became interested in China and I took what was initially supposed to be a six months break to work in Shanghai - that turned into five and a half years ! I worked mostly as a business writer and editor. Obviously during that experience, I was meeting a lot of people in the business community in China and that included the CSR people and the NGOs. I have met quite a few good people in that sector who have turned out to be partners for the Trust.
Q. Do you have particular areas
where you would like to focus your attention and donations? How do you decide
where you would like to contribute support?
A. We have, formally, four “charitable purposes” - poverty, education, environment and heritage. We chose these four partly because they are a mix of our collective interests and to some extent my father’s interests. Those are our “investment sectors”, if you like. We like to think of ourselves as social investors seeking a social return, and we like to think of our projects as “our investments in China”.
projects illustrate a range of things which are very close to our hearts
-rural education, microfinance, helping to develop Chinese NGOs. In a sense, we
are helping capacity building in several
domestic NGOS, which is something that conceptually we are very interested in.
We’re going to try to have no more than 12 to 15 partners at one time. We don’t
simply fund them and never speak to them again, we fund them and want to hear
how they get on and develop, and to have potentially other interactions with
them in the future.
Q. What process do you use to decide who will receive funding?
A. At the moment all the projects have come from personal knowledge and contacts in both the countries. Once we find somebody that looks like a possible partner, we want to meet the people in the organization, develop a relationship with key people, obtain the relevant accounts, ask around a bit, look at their website, speak with other funders, etc. This information is then collected into a standard form we have developed, and circulated amongst Trustees for comment.
Q. Tell me a little about the new website. What are your hopes for how
it will influence the future of the organization and people’s involvement with
A. We see there are two ways we can help. One is to make financial awards, the other is to share information—information sharing has been my professional life for 20 years. The website will grow, I hope, I’ve got various ideas for ways to share knowledge about our partners and other topics that are relevant. There may be ways to be more “interactive” later. We shall see how it develops. It’s very new; it only went up in May.
Q. What projects are you currently working on?
A. We’ve got two in the pipeline, but they are still going through our "due diligence process". Actually, we are focusing more immediately on more partners for Scotland (although if a good China project crosses our radar, we won't ignore it !)