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Philanthropy Framework Profile: Wellcome Trust

December 28, 2018

Key Statistics

Founding Date: 1936
Location: United Kingdom
Total Grantmaking (2016):


“Good health makes life better. We want to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.”

Wellcome describes itself as a “global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent” that supports scientists and researchers, takes on big problems, fuel imaginations, and sparks debate.  A testamentary foundation created in 1936 with assets from the estate of American-born Sir Henry Wellcome, Wellcome’s direct mandate from its founder is to fund “the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind’s wellbeing.”

Core Framework

Wellcome has six main areas of intervention: education, humanities and social science, innovations, policy, public engagement, and science. In these areas, it works to:

  • “Advance ideas” by understanding health and disease, by supporting innovations for improving health, by engaging the public, and by influencing policy.
  • “Seize opportunities and drive reform” to bring about improvements in the priority areas of diversity and inclusion; drug-resistant infections; protecting and sustaining the planet (“our planet, our health”); research ecosystems in Africa and Asia; science education; and the development and use of vaccines.

As the UK’s largest charity, Wellcome has the advantage of influence afforded by its scale, and must pay particular attention to the broader impact of its guiding strategies, operating capabilities, investments, and partnerships with organizations in pursuit of its larger goals.


Sir Henry Wellcome was an American-born pharmaceutical entrepreneur with a fascination for medical research, treatment and wellbeing, who, during his life funded the development of tetanus and diphtheria treatments among other medical advances.  In his will, he left a clear directive for the future work of his foundation, establishing a charity for “the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind’s wellbeing.”  As assets of the Foundation continued to grow with the successes of Henry Wellcome’s company, The Wellcome Foundation, the scope of the foundation’s work also expanded—but always remained in line with the direction implicit in its stewarded charter.

In 2000, the original 1936 charter was revised officially to better reflect the needs of the day. Since then, other revisions have been put in place alongside the periodic development of internal strategic plans. However, the 1936 charter still holds sway, notwithstanding subsequent changes. As one staff member notes: “It has been and it still is, quite a strong source of philosophy and inspiration in terms of the breadth of what the organization does. It also shapes how the organization interprets concepts such as health and medicine, beyond just the medical, because of the way that Henry Wellcome thought about the world.”

It also enables the organization, from a science funding perspective, to have an eye for health but also understand the need for much longer term basic type research in the context of addressing a health mission.  So I think it was quite a far-sighted will for its time in giving the organization flexibility.

Wellcome has increasingly funded international work in recent years, partnering globally with key funders such as the Gates Foundation to tackle important health issues and create an ecosystem of research leaders. These new areas seem very much in line with the founder’s vision for health and wellbeing and are seen internally as part of carrying out that mandate in our ever more globalized world.

Social Compact

As the largest charity in the UK, Wellcome has a noted accountability to the Charity Commission, Wellcome’s ultimate regulator. In addition, Wellcome perceives the organizations it funds and the public at large to be important stakeholders. This is demonstrated clearly by Wellcome’s advocacy and policy work. Staff perceive that they have a strong mandate to drive reform.

As part of its commitment to these stakeholders, Wellcome’s practices have evolved over time to reflect those relationships and to lead by example.  As one staff member stated, “We aim to be as transparent as we can.  So if you look at the website, our annual reports are very detailed and [our] annual reviews are up there.  We show who the money goes to and across [which] fields that it goes.”  This transparency is important based on the stated belief that, “If you are acting for the public good, you have to be part of that discourse with the public about what the public good is, and then think about how to involve different communities that you are purporting to support.” But the organization recognizes that there is a balance to strike between being a funder and a member of the public discourse.  According to another staff member, this is an “on-going challenge – how much does one invest in communications, how much does the communications help achieve impact as much as the activity itself?”

Wellcome works strategically with government so as not to supplant public resources. There is a clear delineation in the type of funding provided by government versus that provided by Wellcome; for example, Wellcome does not provide the overhead support typically supplied by government grants. Instead, Wellcome focuses on direct scientific research activities, helping to make sure that the U.K. remains a key player in the international research communities.  Given this focus, Wellcome goes beyond funding simply research; it also deploys its resources in an advocacy capacity on behalf of the UK research community to generally strengthen the field. Says one member of Wellcome’s senior staff, “Every time there is a spending review we go into battle on behalf of the UK research community.  We fight particularly for science research and the academic community, to ensure that their funding is at least level, if not increasing.”

In addition to working collaboratively with the government, Wellcome partners with other funders.  One example of this is when the organization negotiated with the other research funders as well as the Government to create the Charity Research Support Fund from which a University receives funds “when they are successful in getting peer review charitable funding.”

However, Wellcome has found that size can also be a barrier to the development of external collaborations, sometimes making it hard to form true partnerships with other, smaller funders. They have gotten around this difficulty by developing relationships with larger, non-U.K. organizations. Among these have been partnerships with the Gates Foundation, for example, as well as joint funding opportunities with selected larger foundations in Germany and Sweden.

Given its social compact, Wellcome places a strong priority on measuring impact and success with a long-term perspective, realizing that research projects with that lens may or may not achieve short-term breakthroughs. Internally, Wellcome looks at each project individually and assesses those at the end of each grant term. Because there is so much data collected, Wellcome is also looking at how best to manage and use that data. In and of itself, this data could be a tremendous asset to researchers and other U.K.-based and international funders, and presents Wellcome another opportunity to create change.

Operating Capabilities

With a growing endowment and current grantmaking of £1 billion per year, Wellcome has, according to staff, grown quite quickly at times. A decentralized decision-making approach has helped Wellcome to function in an effective manner and has enabled a review of procedures and operational and grantmaking strategies at the highest levels.

Starting in the year 2000, Wellcome has made an effort to move to a less centralized approach, giving executives and program officers the ability to make certain key decisions rather than limiting those decisions to the board of directors. By leaving grant decisions to its professional staff, this evolution has allowed the Governing Board to focus more on strategic planning. As one staff member reports, “The Governing Board … really think[s] about the future of Wellcome and around its strategy and what is strategic.  We’re in a transition phase of getting information levels, decision-making and detail right.”

This transition in the Governing Board’s key competencies will be an area that Wellcome continues to refine. Likewise, Wellcome has also been shifting its strategic approach toward a more proactive and assertive stance. According to one staff member, “The evolution has been from doing many things in a highly responsive mode to introducing some specific challenges and having the confidence to address them in a broad way.  We are still doing the breadth and the open responsive calls, but we are also saying ‘there are things that we want to achieve specifically.’”

A challenge in an organization of Wellcome’s size is ensuring that different teams share knowledge and work together. To address this, in recent years Wellcome has added a Strategy Division, an Advocacy Policy team, and an Insight and Analysis team that is looking at how best to collect and process data. These new teams are intended to be more cross-organizational. Staff interviewed also note that the new priority areas – “Our Planet, Our Health,” for example – are by nature cross-organizational and require more team interaction.

This more integrated approach puts Wellcome on a more intentional policy and advocacy footing. Wellcome staff note: “Traditionally our Governing Board … ha[d] been quite resistant to us speaking out and much happier for our scientists to do the speaking on our behalf.  But that is changing…We’re very much more sophisticated in our thinking about what might be required and what we need to be talking about and when we need to say something and when we don’t.”

Theory of the Foundation in Action

Wellcome’s continued self-assessment and refinement of its operating capabilities show dedication to both its unwavering social compact and its charter: the “advancement of mankind’s wellbeing.” Changes to the organization’s internal capabilities, such as the addition of professional staff and the advancement of an in-house investment team for example, reinforce its ability to carry out its work in an effective manner. The more assertive public stance and advocacy efforts newly undertaken by Wellcome reflect Wellcome’s desire to respond to current external factors, such as government and other funding levels, for the work it most values.

Precisely because of its current size and the potential for the endowment to grow further, Wellcome’s operating capabilities in their fullest sense will continue to be a priority. As it continues to carry out its work, Wellcome’s leadership periodically will need to consider:

  • What enhanced board capacities will be needed in the future?
  • What types of staff backgrounds will be relevant to Wellcome’s new, more integrated program approach?
  • How to continue to address operational capacity needs related to growing endowment size?

Wellcome will also need to continue to think about how its advocacy and policy role might evolve, and what data to share with the public. In addition to funding actual research, disseminating knowledge that it has already helped to create can be another important role for this funder. Careful ongoing consideration of its operating capabilities, as demonstrated by the current staff, leadership, and Governing Board, will continue to strengthen Wellcome, and also help it to define success as it moves forward.

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