When Jimi Heselden’s HESCO wire barriers were taken up by the military he became an unexpected millionaire – one who was determined to bring the wealth back to his hometown of Leeds

It’s a long way from the east side of Leeds to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan – a touch above 3,500 miles as the crow flies. But the residents of both places have cause for gratitude toward the late entrepreneur Jimi Heselden.

In 1989, Heselden founded HESCO Bastion to manufacture the collapsible Concertainer barricade system he had developed. As the name suggests, its wire-mesh barriers are stored flat like the folds of a concertina. Once extended, they open out into a container for sand, gravel or any other material to hand. And when filled, these units are sturdy enough to withstand anything from a flood surge to a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

Though originally intended for civilian use, Heselden’s system was soon snapped up by the military. And perhaps the greatest testament to HESCO Bastion’s success is that it lent its name to the main British military base in Afghanistan, which uses the barriers to protect the whole of its 25-mile perimeter.

It also made Jimi Heselden a very rich man – and one keen to give something back to his native Leeds.

Giving back through a community foundation

“Jimi was born in a really deprived area of Leeds called Halton Moor,” says Sally-Anne Greenfield, Chief Executive of the Leeds Community Foundation. “He’d always given to charity, but when his profits went through the roof, his tax advisers recommended that he set up a charitable trust. Because of the way his tax year fell, he couldn’t do that quickly enough; so he was introduced to us.”

Heselden set up a trust that donated a total of £23 million to the foundation, which aims to improve Leeds people’s quality of life by funding local projects and encouraging donations. Though independent, it is affiliated to UK Community Foundations, an umbrella organisation that brings together 54 such organisations.

“We’d see him every couple of months, and he’d tell us what kind of projects he was interested in,” says Greenfield. “Then we’d accept applications from local groups, do the due diligence and check them out, and present him with a shortlist so that he could decide which ones to support. In effect, we were managing a personal grant-making trust for him. Donor-directed funding like this is a part of what community foundations do – it’s an alternative to having your own charitable trust.”

Trends in modern philanthropy

According to Greenfield, this story exemplifies a strong trend in modern philanthropy. Donors are no longer content simply to scribble off cheques to charity. They are far more likely to become involved in the finer details of what their support is achieving on the ground.

Since Heselden’s untimely death after a Segway scooter accident in 2010, the foundation has continued to manage his fund along the guidelines that he specified.

Most recently, it has helped to support employment and training opportunities for disadvantaged people in East Leeds.

“Jimi’s philosophy was to give people a hand up, not a hand-out,” says Greenfield. “So we recently did a consultation on the ground with local groups in East Leeds and they said the pressing problem was unemployment.

“We therefore invested £500,000 of his fund in an enterprise scheme that either focused on getting people skilled up to get a job, or was invested in social enterprises that would then increase income and potentially take on more staff. Early results are great.”

What’s more, Greenfield believes that these social enterprises are becoming more and more important as a vehicle for philanthropists. Often, they are entities that compete on level terms with for-profit companies, and are starting to appear in more and more market sectors. The only difference is that their profits are reinvested in social causes rather than distributed to shareholders.

She says: “Wealthy industrialists will see lots of synergies between themselves and these businesses. And they may also see their donation in a different way – as more of an investment. They are likely to want to know more about the projects, see the business plan and understand the model. And they may want to give practical advice and mentoring, as well as cash.”

How to get more out of giving

Read our tips on being a tax-efficient philanthropist and getting more out of giving.

Image: US Navy

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