How to give it: Chris Coles

Chris Coles, 51, is a partner at Actis, a private equity firm specialising in emerging markets. In 2007, following a career in banking, he completed a master’s degree in international development. He is a supporter of Health Poverty Action (

What is the first charity you can remember supporting?

Action Aid’s child sponsorship programme, which I still support. Shortly after I started work in the City of London, and was no longer an impoverished student, a friend was enthusing about Action Aid in the pub. I looked into it more and was struck by the dramatic effect that a small amount of money in UK terms could have in Africa.

Which cause do you feel most strongly about now?

I visited a friend in Zambia in 1990. I was bowled over by Africa – the people, the friendliness, the poverty, the history. As a result of that, and because I’ve been particularly lucky so far [in these areas], my chief causes are health and education in Africa. [That is] Health Poverty Action’s focus, so that’s why I support them. With charitable donation it’s best to specialise in one area. If you understand the issues and the background, you can donate more effectively.

Do you ensure that your donations are used efficiently?

For me it’s a form of investment, so I like to know how the money will be spent, meet the people, visit the projects and assess their impact. On a 2007 visit to Health Poverty Action’s projects in Rwanda I saw great work and met very good Rwandan staff working on the ground.

Why do people give to charity?

For me it’s about giving back, about opening my eyes to what’s going on in the rest of the world and providing advice where I think I can be helpful. It’s not without its challenges but I’ve found it rewarding in terms of feedback from people I’ve helped. Also, it has broadened my horizons to the challenges and the living conditions that significant numbers of people have to deal with. If you don’t expose yourself to that by visiting these places, I think you end up a less well-rounded person.

How have recent years affected the banking sector’s attitude to charity?

Many of my friends in banking now seem to be doing a great deal of work in the charity sector. But I think that’s because they’re getting older. They’re pretty much retired, they’ve built up some capital and they’ve got time on their hands. So I think they’d be doing it whether the banking crisis had happened or not.

Should we put our own country’s citizens first?

There are people in need in the UK but that can be down to policy failures or poor policy choices. These are needs that the UK government had the capacity to address. In Africa, the problems are more profound and often the state does not have the capacity to solve them.

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