Lord Nat Wei

Lord Nat Wei is an entrepreneur, specialising in technology as well as a social innovator. He was given a Peerage by David Cameron in 2010 (the youngest at the time) and was appointed as his “Big Society Tsar”.  He has co-founded a succession of successful businesses and non-profits, including the Shaftesbury Partnership, and sits on multiple company boards advising on technology, investing, and impact. He advises family offices and foundations on how to make a scalable impact, particularly in harnessing the potential of future generations. 

1. How did you get into philanthropy and impact?

For me, it all started with an opportunity to take time out when I was working at McKinsey in 2001, with the option to go back with or without an MBA. As the son of an immigrant family who joined the company straight after university, this presented a rare, low-risk opportunity to explore my options outside of the company. At the time, I’d already been working in digital entrepreneurship and I was intrigued by social entrepreneurship. The break allowed me to meet like-minded people and be part of setting up Teach First, staying until 2004. That’s when I realised how I could make a positive impact, particularly by creating initiatives, charities and ventures that would, as they scaled, make a systemic impact on the problems of the day. 

2. How did your passion for this work develop?

Well, I started to be known for doing this work and the then Opposition Leader and thereafter Prime Minister David Cameron and his team, invited me and my team at the Shaftesbury Partnership to help design and set up pilots for the National Citizenship Service, which I was happy to take on. This and my prior experience in turn led to my appointment to the House of Lords, in 2010, serving the nation by looking at legislation and championing various social issues. 

Since then, my corporate and commercial work has also leaned towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the impact we can make, whether on climate or housing or a whole raft of education and other issues, so a lot of my life is now converging. I am still doing a lot of Think Tank and Do Tank work, as well as continuing to focus on my impact-related work in my commercial endeavours and advisory work, and around community building with my family. 

3. What did your role as “Big Society Tsar” entail and what were you trying to achieve?

Originally, I was just intrigued by a speech by Cameron just before the 2010 election, about this idea of the Big Society and how we needed more than just the government and big business to step up. After the lecture, I asked him and his team, do they have any policies and they said, “not really, can you work them up?” I spent a few months before the election looking at policies, most of which are still around today, such as Big Society Capital, a wholesale provider of investment to impact-orientated funds, the networks for community organising, and of course national citizenship service itself. During the election, the idea took off briefly but suddenly we found ourselves in a coalition government.

For me, coming from a tech background, the landscape wasn’t about the village fete or shrinking government. It was more about the potential to replicate what the internet has done for us in terms of information and putting power into our hands to shape the services around us. What if we could have some of that dynamic ability to affect our lives and the services we use closer to us in our communities? For example, if we want to set up a school, could we do so? Can we move towards having more access to our data in the healthcare system and looking after ourselves rather than just waiting to be told what to do or going to A&E? 

4. What do you see as the future for the Big Society concept?

I predicted over a decade ago that if we don’t make this shift in society, then people will get angry because they have so much power with their phones, but they can’t decide how often their bins are collected, for example. That anger will spill over into populism and sadly, this has come to pass.      The truth is that the government cannot solve everything, and the cost of being asked to do so is prohibitively high, especially as our population ages. Populism taps into that anger but does not solve this problem because the government is still the driver of the solutions, versus giving people more control directly over some of the things where their solutions may be more effective.

5. Which particular causes or social issues resonate with you the most?

I work across every sector. Right now, the focus is on climate change, using algae, technology and blockchain to decarbonise the planet quickly. I am also focusing on harnessing the retiring or semi-retired generation who have the potential to be the new economic performers just like Victorian middle-class women and focusing on a lot of work on governance and training. Another focus is working on what I call the social spreadsheet, can you model the impact of what you do before you do it? We can model today’s financial side of policies and initiatives, but can you predict whether it’s going to work and have the intended outcomes promised or not before you spend a lot of money on it?    

6. In 50 years, looking back, what do you want to have achieved?

I recently did one of those surveys called the big why. You fill in a form and you pick nouns and adjectives. My big why was “empowering futuristic restoration”. I think we’ve done a lot of damage to the planet. I have a Christian faith background, so a lot of what motivates me is to see the world restored to its original positive intent and design. Now that requires a different approach to previous eras. Before we focused on needing more money from the government or we needed new laws, or emphasised raising awareness through campaigns. But there comes a point when no matter how many laws, money, awareness or information you generate, it still does not fix the complex broken systems that currently can overwhelm us. It is the system that is not working properly. We need systemic solutions.



7. In terms of all the different things you’ve done, what’s been the most rewarding and satisfying thing?

Well, a lot of my work is very systemic and high-level, and high-level is sometimes harder to fund. On a personal level, I realised with my family, especially over the Covid period that it’s also important to help individuals. That means people in your community. In our community, a parent tragically died from COVID-19, and we knew the child who was affected. We have been helping to support them. We have them around quite often and staying with us over the weekend, just to mentor them and help them with their life decisions. In the case of another lady in our community, her husband died serving on the front line in Covid but didn’t get a payout from the NHS because he was a locum worker. Over the years I’ve helped her get a job in a bank in Canary Wharf because she came from a city background but took ten to fifteen years to look after kids and she needed help to readjust. I’ve come to realise that ultimately, in philanthropy, giving your time is the most precious gift because we all have 168 hours a week.

8. What are your aspirations for the future and your work?

As I get older, I feel there are still some mountains I want to climb, as it were, just to keep me active and help me keep my edge and I have a few big ones in my sights. Ultimately, I aspire to train others to go after me. I remember reading Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward” book which talks about how in the first half of your life, you focus very much on what you are doing, you’re the son as it were. While in the second half of life, you have to learn to be the father and mentor and help others to do it.

The first mountain I have my eye on is the need to reform the internet and make it more relational and make it less spammy. The second is that we probably look at politics itself and Parliament and how even legislative processes can be opened up so people can know what’s going on and suggest improvements. A bit like open-source coding for law making, as it were. 

How do we just make philanthropy and systemic approaches to changing an everyday skill, just like you and I use Google Spreadsheets or Excel? Some tools and approaches are coming that will wire impact into the way we live life. For example, I charge my car, which is an electric car, on certain days of the week now because I can check a report that predicts for me when the electricity grid is likely to be greener, with impact woven into my life.

9. How do you see the philanthropic landscape changing over the next decade or two?

Philanthropy has its fashions like many things, I can’t quite predict where it’s going to go. Even though I’m a techie, I’m becoming more traditional in my approach, and I would encourage a bigger focus, if I could, on time. Any person’s time is worth more than their money, at the end of the day. One of the trends I would identify is philanthropists giving more of their time, and not just the data-driven approach we have seen. Being human in the age of AI.

There is also a trend in the DAF (donor-advised fund) world, in some parts of America to do impact loans, which I really like. It’s simpler than impact bonds: we’re going to lend you £100 million, and we’ll write it off if you deliver the SDGs that you said you would. I like this idea because it is simpler yet potentially could be very effective.

The final concept is looking at the secondary markets in the impact that’s already been achieved, which is really like extending the idea of carbon credits to social credits and governance credits. Essentially saying to people: “you did a good job, social entrepreneur or leader, here’s another million pounds rewarding you for the impact you just had. We trust you to spend that million well, and if you and your team do a great job, we’ll give you another £10 million afterwards.” This could be done with them selling the impact to you they already made, which is a lot less bureaucratic than asking for data on the potential impact they could make in future.    

10. How can we encourage more philanthropy and giving in the UK?

There are many ways but recently I’ve been thinking that we could do with getting the people that are really good at solving systemic problems opportunities to do that. Identifying them, which technology allows us to now do, and giving them either scholarships or secondment opportunities like the one I received to pursue that particular calling using that gift. If they come from a low-income background, maybe help them have those kinds of transformational scholarships to be able to afford to live. Could we create communities where they get access to affordable housing so they can work on big problems that need solving?

Quick fire round:

Favourite charity? Table For 2 and Treedom          

Favourite philanthropist? 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-85), a social reformer.

Three most important skills in philanthropy? Humility, pattern recognition and backing great teams.