East End activists

On a sunny October Friday a small army of professionals from the world of private equity descended on one of the most deprived boroughs in London for an extraordinary day's work.

A team of 80 volunteers drawn from supporting firms of the Private Equity Foundation (PEF) – a UK-based venture philanthropy organisation – spent the day at the newly built Rokeby Community Links Centre in Newham, East London, painting, gardening and building a ‘challenge course’ and playhouse.

PEF, which helped fund the new centre, is backed by over 70 private equity firms and their advisers, including Texas Pacific Group, Cinven, The Blackstone Group and Apax Partners. Its work focuses on “empowering young people to reach their full potential”, so a local borough in which 55 percent of the child population grows up beneath the poverty line seems like a suitable place to be.

Recruiting volunteers was a lot easier than expected, and the day was ultimately way oversubscribed. But was it just a chance for well-to-do private equity practitioners to ditch the suit and spend a day out of the office ‘doing good’ before returning to the comfort of the day job?

Shaks Ghosh, chief executive of PEF, explains that the ultimate goal of the day was not just to save on contracting fees – although one trustee did point out that the volunteers' work would have cost around £100,000 if done professionally – but to spread the idea of venture philanthropy through the ranks of private equity groups, banks and law firms.

“Hopefully the individuals who came down will be even more enthusiastic about the work we are doing with young people and will look for other ways to get involved,”she said, referring to the pro bono business advice that PEF supporters provide their charities.

So while volunteers lined up alongside both workers from the charity Community Links and young people whom Community Links had helped, it was about more than just manual labour; it was about spreading the venture philanthropy message.