Firm Foundations – Helping Strengthen AAW’s Philanthropy Offer

28th June 2022 by Jo Hastie

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Earlier this month, Jennie Gillions joined the AAW Group as an Associate Senior Consultant.

Jennie is a highly experienced philanthropic funding and partnerships expert with 14 years’ private and institutional fundraising, strategy development and relationship management experience within international and UK non-profit organisations. Jennie was Global Philanthropy Lead for ActionAid International and has had senior trusts and institutional fundraising roles with Médecins du Monde, British Heart Foundation and British Red Cross amongst other charities. She has secured major grants from a wide range of trust and institutional funders including the National Lottery, EU, NORAD, Elton John Aids Foundation, Zochonis and a variety of family/ corporate trusts, and we are delighted she is joining the AAW family to share her expertise with our clients. Below she tells us more about her background and some of the key issues that are relevant to charities’ philanthropic fundraising right now.

Jennie Gillions image

Can you tell us about a few of your achievements in funding.

I accidentally fell into the voluntary sector after getting my degree in history, working in my first Trusts and Foundations fundraising job at the Refugee Council, after five years as a volunteer manager, mainly because I love writing! I achieved my first grant of £5,000 for interpreting services for women fleeing Sri Lanka and the DRC.

My most significant bids have been in a sector I love – international development. I spent two years at the Red Cross and secured grants totalling £1.4 million from the Big Lottery Fund for refugee services in England and Scotland and an additional £600,000 from the EU for anti-trafficking projects in Europe, as well as funding for post Ebola work in Sierra Leone.

One of the most challenging bids I worked on was for the French-headquartered charity Médecins du Monde to the Elton John Aids Foundation for funding for counselling and HIV services for sex workers in Moscow. It was particularly difficult given President Putin made changes to the law twice during the grant application period, making it even harder for people to access healthcare and meaning we had to change our approach to avoid frontline delivery staff breaching new legislation. Satisfyingly, the bid was successful though, raising £650,000 over a two year period for the project.

I also spent 2.5 years at ActionAid International as the Philanthropy and corporate partnerships lead, which was like an internal consultant role in the Global Secretariat, supporting colleagues in Africa, Asia and Brazil to understand how to access grant funding from corporate sources, individual major givers, and trust and foundations. I carried out training, helping them to create strategies, reviewed their cases for support and provided guidance on what donors are looking for. I enjoyed exploring and understanding how to put their stories across to philanthropists, so that they would want to invest.

Tell us about your new involvement with AAW

I was contacted by AAW after being made redundant from ActionAid, along with many other staff members, partly as a result of the pandemic. Being an associate and freelancing appealed to me to give me more variety and freedom to solve problems – something I particularly like to do, but which can be more difficult in an organisation with heavy bureaucracy and layers of permissions to get anything done.

I want to help people solve their problems and overcome barriers to fundraising, working out the reasons why you are not raising money, which aren’t always obvious – perhaps your fundraising policies are wrong, your back-end support isn’t right or your board isn’t supportive of fundraising.

I also love helping others with grant writing. The trafficking grant I worked on was drafted by a colleague using English as a second language. I loved editing that down, making the story-telling stronger and making the project more appealing to the donor. I could write bids for the rest of my life!

Story-telling and language come across as key interests in your background, tell us why.

What I love about grant writing is getting the perfect word and language to communicate clearly. My parents were both journalists and I am very keen on the use of inclusive language in international development; so many UK, EU and US funders write in very formal English and there is no attempt to translate for other audiences. For countries where British or American English is not their first language, they are already at a disadvantage. If people are serious about decolonising funding, they need to make their language more accessible.

I recently completed a certificate in Philanthropic Psychology from the Institution of Sustainable Philanthropy founded by Professor Jen Shang and Professor Adrian Sargeant. The course explored the psychology of how people respond to being spoken to in different ways and getting into the mindset of donors in the way you talk – what language you use and how people respond to that language and specific words, bringing them with you on the fundraising journey.

What do you think the key issues are currently around trusts and foundations and institutional fundraising?

One huge issue right now is the decolonisation of Aid, which is key within the international development sector. Some trusts and foundations may be quite conservative and this is not an issue for them (though it should be), but many younger and/or more progressive donors who are interested in Black Lives Matter, Pride and #CharitySoWhite, for example, will increasingly be looking at donating to causes where they can see charities actually doing something on these issues, not just talking about them. And charities need to do their part to influence an institutional shift; if you are serious about having African nationals running African NGOs you need to be having conversations with your funders about transferring funding directly to those organisations.

In the UK context, ‘decolonisation’ feeds into how organisations manage diversity and inclusion.

Another interesting issue in the UK is grant-makers’ investments. In May, two of the Sainsbury family trusts won a case against the Charity Commission that means funders in England and Wales can exclude companies not adhering to the Paris Agreement from their investment portfolios, if investing in those companies would run contrary to funders’ charitable objectives. They haven’t been allowed to do that before, because English and Welsh law emphasised high financial return; the ruling means funders can invest ethically, even if that means they’ll have less money to give away.

Finally, we still don’t know what the impact will be post-pandemic for trusts and foundations (including corporate foundations and trusts that are vehicles for individual philanthropy) after the last couple of years – I think it will take a while to see the impact on levels of funding to the sector.

Jennie is available to offer strategic and hands-on support with all your trusts & foundations requirements. If you’d like to find out more contact her at