Shining New Light: the story of Pilotlight

“I wanted to bring new people to the table,” is how Jane Tewson, a celebrated social entrepreneur, describes her decision to set up Pilotlight, formed and registered as a charity in 1996. It was, in ways, a similar spirit to her earlier achievement of co-founding Comic Relief – how do you listen to and give power to those who are living in poverty by engaging the time and the talent of those who don’t?

The purpose of the charity was sealed in the name. As Jane says, “Pilotlight means igniting other flames; being a catalyst, bringing things together and letting them go. So, spreading new flames, shining new light.”

The creation of the charity created space for her to explore how to test a new model of charity as active, emotional, involving and fun. With a small team, she operated with the support of far-thinking business leaders such as Alan Parker, founder of the Brunswick Group, which hosted the team and made them a part of its family, and Joel Joffe, founder of Allied Dunbar, who was a mentor throughout the early years.

 “We were linking people together, to ignite conversations that wouldn’t normally happen and to uncover things that remain hidden from sight,” she explains. “We wanted to be an organisation that went under the radar, tackling thorny issues in creative and unexpected ways - and really unlock and allow people to be heard, to give them their own voice and not to talk for people. Organisations that don’t involve people they are there to support never thrive, as they are not good advocates. Money is helpful but we saw that it wouldn’t change things. We needed more thoughtful ways to bring people together.”

“My belief is that everyone wants to help,” she adds. “You have to tell them why you need them and very rarely does anyone say no, if you have put thought into it and put it with care.”

The first Pilotlight project was called the Real Deal. In concert with the thinktank Demos, she asked Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, ‘how often do you involve people that you are making policies about?’. With his support, Pilotlight set up meetings in which Cabinet Ministers met people in need and people on the margins, such as one 12-year-old pregnant mother. With supportive people alongside, such as Geoff Mulgan and trustees such as David Robinson, working in Newham, Jane says, “we wanted to change the face of policymaking.”

The second Pilotlight initiative emerged from Jane’s time at Comic Relief. “I always felt we had a lot more to learn from Africa than they from us.”

With her connection to Africa and a familial relationship with Australia, Pilotlight orchestrated an Africa / Australia Exchange in 1998 funded by the National Lottery Charities Board in which a delegation of East African pastoralists visited Australia and a group of Indigenous Australians visited East Africa to learn from each other by sharing perspectives in common on land rights.

In the wake of this, Pilotlight was able to support senior traditional owner and Mirrar clan leader, Yvonne Margarula, in challenging the London-based company North Limit to protect their land in Kakadu National Park from expanded uranium mining at Jabaluka. In the same vein, Pilotlight helped to prompt a search in Everton Cemetery in Liverpool for the head of the Noongar warrior leader Yagan.

A third leg of exchanges was filmed by the BBC, which was the arrival of Indigenous people from both East Africa and Australia to London, to see what we could learn from them. Representatives from the First Nations met with the Queen, helping to put their rights onto the Commonwealth agenda.

The next project was then to explore how to reinvent volunteering. This became the foundation of the programme One Twenty, initially funded by the government and which soon after became the organisation TimeBank.

 “As Pilotlight,” Jane comments “we were a force, but it wasn’t all about us. We wanted the profile to be about them rather than us. What we would do is to go to people who are bloody good in their area and ask them to give us their skills.”

“A key to my success,” she continues “and key to loving what I do, is always having amazing teams around me - and having good mentors. The development of Pilotlight was down to the extraordinary support and trust shown by the Board, many of whom were involved with Comic Relief, as well as people like Vanessa Howe who took the Demos project forward, Charles Lane, my husband, who was very involved with the Land Rights work and the team at Brunswick who were always around to support … it was truly amazing being able to chat through game-changing ideas with communications legends.”

A fourth project, amongst others, focused on venture philanthropy, the idea that business leaders could direct not just their money but their skills to strategic causes. This was taken forward by Fiona Halton, a former colleague from the early days at Comic Relief. Fiona joined Pilotlight in 2000 after hearing that Jane was working on the giving of time just as they had worked on the giving of money at Comic Relief. When Jane left for Australia, Fiona picked up the reins. Jane founded Pilotlight Australia, which evolved into Igniting Change, a small, entrepreneurial and ambitious charity active on a range of challenges from death and dying through to a key programme focused on the needs and voice of First Nations people.

With insecure finances and a concern that handing initiatives on was making them lose their essence, Fiona focused on how business leaders could give their skills and keep this initiative in Pilotlight. As she explains, “I like to do one thing and to do it properly.” This was a change, but even so, the challenge was to find that one thing. Various initial options for skills-sharing (including the US approach of giving money as well as time) were considered but rejected by her advisors on the work - a cluster of business leaders – dubbed the Pilotlight Twenty and including Guy Hands of Nomura.

The case for action was felt to be proven. Small charities operate on what Fiona calls a “mouse wheel of funding”, where funders do not cover core costs or call a halt after three years. Pilotlight ran a survey to test the idea that what they needed was business skills. The results were overwhelming – only 4% of charities that responded believed that they used professional skills effectively.

The challenge was to find a way to make the most of the skills that businesspeople could bring. One key figure advising Fiona was John Butterworth. Generous but razor sharp and someone who didn’t suffer fools, Butterworth argued that what Pilotlight needed was an investment model, matching needs and skills and focussed on results.

The methodology started to come together through the trial and testing carried out by Fiona and Deborah Xavier, Pilotlight’s first volunteer and first Project Manager. Using a broker to help business and charity people understand each other and work together emerged as crucial – “both sides did not speak the same language,” as Fiona puts it. It also seemed important to have a team-based approach of four very senior businesspeople all holding each other to account and learning from each other, as well as the charity. And ‘coaching rather than telling’ became the order of the day.   

Even so, it was clear that most charitable foundations would not yet support the approach of funding city people to give them their time. If the all-important broker to manage city people giving their skills effectively was to be hired, there was only one way to do it. As John Sanderson, a city strategist, put it, Pilotlight should ask him to pay to give his time. The charity needed to become a social enterprise.

The first member of Pilotlight signed up under this model was not in fact a City person but Paul Jackson, Chair of Comic Relief. But the wider recruitment was painfully slow. Then everything changed over the Christmas holidays. On her return, Fiona found her assistant, Rita, standing over a pile of applications.

“What made the difference,” Fiona recounts “was that the Financial Times magazine published an article on our new approach to city skills-giving. We told the FT that if you wanted to join, you needed to give us your CV, because we only wanted very senior businesspeople on our teams and that they had to understand how to work on a ‘coaching not telling’ basis. It was only fair. We checked out the charities with the same rigour too, to ensure they were going to gain from the coaching. The FT called it ‘the club with no name’. After that article, we received a pile of letters saying, ‘can I join?’. The first 100 members and more came from this.”

It was a start, but as with any enterprise, it was far from easy. “The first six or seven years were like climbing up a wall,” commented Fiona. “They were exciting, but we were still inventing a process.” Graham Clempson came on board as Chair and applied a private equity insight and discipline to growing the charity – including to ensure that the team measured all they did and were efficient in delivering results. She credits Gillian Murray, who was to become Pilotlight’s third CEO after Fiona had shifted focus for a period to work in Asia, supporting the foundation of the Talent Trust in Singapore based on the Pilotlight model, for “instilling rigour and systems into all we did,” and for “saving us from the start-up turmoil of the first years".

So Pilotlight was founded by Jane. Pilotlight 360, formerly the Pilotlight Programme of skills exchange was founded by Fiona. Both were put on a stable footing by Gillian, following on from these two inspiring leaders. By the time of Pilotlight’s twenty-fifth birthday in late 2021, one thousand charities serving people in need have benefited from support from Pilotlighters, growing their reach, sustainability and impact.   

This work continues, with a new brand launched in late 2021 as a recommitment of purpose for Pilotlight and its community of Pilotlighters, partner businesses and partner charities. Looking forward, there are new challenges and new people to bring to the table. How will Pilotlight unlock new connections, shine new light and foster systemic social change? The advice from Jane and Fiona on the future for Pilotlight comes from the heart:

“Innovate. Pilotlight has the ability to do so much, but it will have to innovate to keep the model adapting to the changing needs of both charities and Pilotlighters alike. Both have so much to give and so much to gain from the Pilotlight process.” Fiona Halton

“Listen. My advice is to listen and be curious. Ask questions you genuinely want to know answers to and create quiet spaces into which people will let you in.” Jane Tewson

For Individuals