£15m Oxford property purchase not funded by failed crypto platform, says charity

22 Feb 2023 News

Wytham Abbey, Wytham, Oxford, Flickr

Dave Price

A charity under investigation has revealed that it did not use funds from a failed crypto trading and derivatives platform to buy a £15m property. 

In April last year, Effective Ventures Foundation (EVF) purchased Wytham Abbey near Oxford and some land around it with the aim of using it as a “convening centre to run workshops and meetings” on the world’s biggest issues. 

Property agent Savills listed the Oxfordshire abbey, which has 25 acres of gardens and parkland and access to the wider Wytham 2,500-acre estate, on the market for £15m in 2021.

EVF confirmed to Civil Society News that the purchase was completed through “a large grant made specifically for this”. “There was no money from FTX or affiliated individuals or organisations,” it said.

£17m grant to purchase Wytham Abbey 

Open Philanthropy, a philanthropic funder, said on its website that it awarded a grant of £17m to EVF in December 2021 “to support the purchase, renovation, and operation of Wytham Abbey”.  

“Together with EVF, we will examine the impact of this approach over time; if it turns out to be less cost-effective than alternatives, proceeds from a sale will be used to support EVF’s ongoing operations,” the statement read. 

EVF did not confirm how much it bought the abbey for but said that it was purchased in April alongside less than 1% of the 2,500-acre estate around it.  

Writing in EVF’s forum, Shakeel Hashim, head of communications at the charity’s Oxford-based subsidiary the Centre for Effective Altruism, said it was turning the abbey into a convening centre.

“Wytham is in the process of being established as a convening centre to run workshops and meetings that bring together people to think seriously about how to address important problems in the world,” he said.

“The vision is modelled on traditional specialist conference centres, e.g. Oberwolfach, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center or the Brocher Foundation.

“The purchase was made from a large grant made specifically for this. There was no money from FTX or affiliated individuals or organisations.”

Lack of transparency and communication?

Some people have criticised EVF’s purchase of Wytham Abbey, saying that the charity should be more transparent and communicative around large expenses.  

One individual wrote in the forum: “There is not enough public information to confirm that the decision was the result of a plausible cost-effectiveness analysis rather than a (perhaps unconsciously caused) self-serving rationalisation of lavish spending. Ruling out this concern seems important, and not just for ‘PR’ reasons: becoming less mission-oriented and increasing self-serving expenses while growing is a common failure mode for charities. 

“Perhaps, in the absence of contrary evidence, it should even be our default expectation that this happens (to some extent). In particular, these effects are more likely when a charity is not very transparent about the actions it takes and the reasons for them and when the actions (e.g. buying fancy buildings) are very liable to this kind of rationalisation and can be explained by these effects. 

“If important decisions of CEA are not explained and justified publicly, outsiders cannot get evidence to the contrary, i.e., evidence that decisions are made because there is a plausible case that they are the most (altruistically) cost-effective actions.”

Statutory inquiry

In December 2022, the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into EVF following the collapse FTX. 

EVF, which reported FTX’s bankruptcy as a serious incident, previously received grants and donations from FTX and FTX Future Fund.  

The regulator said that it has not found any wrongdoing by the trustees at this time but added that it was concerned about potential risks to the charity’s assets.  

Data for the financial year ending 30 June 2021 showed that EVF’s total income was £18.7m against expenditure of £14m. 

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