By Georgina Ferry

Georgina Ferry has written a history of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Centre’s original founder


On 17 March 1967, David Sainsbury established his personal charitable trust, the Gatsby Foundation, with a cheque for £5 and 110,000 shares in the Sainsbury supermarket business. When the century-old family business went public in 1973, Gatsby suddenly had serious money to spend on charitable causes. Sainsbury has since given over £1bn to Gatsby, making him Britain’s most generous living private donor.

Preoccupied with his role in running the business, Sainsbury took his time to decide where his priorities would lie. But from an early stage he knew that one of those would be mental health.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Gatsby, Sainsbury commissioned me to write a history of the foundation. For each of his main areas of charitable concern – technical education, public policy, economic development in East Africa, plant science, neuroscience, and visual and theatre arts, as well as mental health – I had the pleasure of interviewing both programme officers and beneficiaries for their recollections of Gatsby-funded endeavours.

...the Centre’s influential role in mental health research and advocacy is a direct outcome of the way the Gatsby mental health programme developed over more than 30 years.

The mental health chapter is one of the earliest in the book, and so was one of the first I wrote. I became so absorbed in the story that I ended up with far more interviewees than I did for any other chapter. Although Gatsby ceased to provide core funding to Centre for Mental Health in 2010, the Centre’s influential role in mental health research and advocacy is a direct outcome of the way the Gatsby mental health programme developed over more than 30 years.

Sainsbury told me that as a student of psychology at Cambridge in the early 1960s, he had been taken to visit Fulbourn Hospital, the local county asylum. Filled with enthusiasm for new discoveries in neuroscience, he hoped there would soon be ‘cures’ that would mean such places of incarceration would no longer be necessary. But he soon realised that such a day, if it ever came, would be very far off.

The Centre is a classic example of how charitable money can be used to make big change.

Instead, having set up his charity, he encouraged Gatsby to respond to requests for funds to trial new methods of caring for people with mental illness in the community. These contacts led, in 1985, to the establishment of the National Unit for Psychiatric Research and Development (NUPRD) at Guy’s Hospital in London. The rest, as they say, is history: as the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, the unit expanded from research into advocacy, policy, and service development with influential reports on topics such as assertive outreach, racial inequality, the service user’s perspective, and employment support.

I was struck, during the course of my research, by how many people who had been associated with the Centre had gone on to key positions in mental health. Thomas Craig, the first director of the NUPRD, is now Professor of Community and Social Psychiatry at King’s College, London. Matt Muijen, who succeeded Craig, went on to be head of mental health for the World Health Organisation’s European Region. Andrew McCulloch, SCMH’s head of policy, later became Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation; Geraldine Strathdee, who headed SCMH’s service development team, went on to be National Clinical Director of Mental Health for NHS England. Former Centre director Sean Duggan is now head of the mental health network of the NHS Confederation. There are many more examples, all of whom have taken the Centre’s passion for evidence and advocacy into their new roles.

Gatsby’s philanthropic priority is not to relieve need but to effect social change. Its mental health programme was not about funding mental health provision – that would be way beyond the reach of any private foundation – but about influencing the way services are delivered. Philip Hunt (Lord Hunt of King’s Heath, formerly a minister in the Department of Health) sums up its impact: ‘The Centre is a classic example of how charitable moneys can be used to make big change. The ultimate test must be: “Has it helped to change the way people with mental health issues are looked after?” I’m convinced that it has.’

The ultimate test must be: “Has it helped to change the way people with mental health issues are looked after?” I’m convinced that it has.


A Better World is Possible: The Gatsby Foundation and Social Progress was published in September 2017 by Profile Books.