Ten questions for… Simon Wagstaff, Global Head of Technology Services
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This year marks the 10th anniversary of A&O opening its Belfast office, now home to around 600 people in our Support Services Centres and Advanced Delivery Legal.
Simon Wagstaff joined A&O Belfast four years ago and is Global Head of Technology Services – the team that provides all IT support for A&O globally.
Simon also leads the Belfast Grants Committee, which allocates A&O Foundation funding to local charities in Northern Ireland, and he has been the Executive Sponsor of A&O Belfast’s Pro Bono and Community Investment Committee for the past three years.
Describe yourself in 30 words
A Yorkshireman who’s lived and worked on the island of Ireland for over 20 years. My wife and three daughters still don’t understand what I do for a living.
What motivated you to start doing community investment work at A&O?
Community investment work was something I’d had experience of and enjoyed at previous firms. As well as the obvious benefits for the communities and organisations you support, it’s a great way to create a sense of identity and purpose in a workplace. My last place of work before joining A&O didn’t have any formal community investment programmes and it was something I really missed being part of, so I was keen to get involved as soon as I joined A&O.
What sorts of organisations does the Belfast Grants Committee support and how do you decide who to award funding to?
The Belfast Grants Committee is funded by the contributions of all partners to the A&O Foundation. The Foundation provides funding to support disaster relief efforts and emergencies, as well as awarding grants to international organisations through the Global Grants Programme. The remainder of the Foundation’s funding – around 75% of it – goes to offices to allocate within their local communities.
In Belfast, we use the funding to help a wide range of organisations who have active programmes of work across Northern Ireland. As well as supporting A&O’s central areas of focus – access to justice and access to education and employment – we look more widely for organisations that are active in all communities in Northern Ireland. This year we’re also placing more emphasis on supporting organisations that offer good volunteering opportunities for A&O colleagues in Belfast, something we know is important to people and increases the impact our funding can have with these organisations.
How do you use your professional skills and those of your team to support organisations?
One organisation we work with is The Turnaround Project, which provides transitional employment opportunities to help people serving terms in prison turn around their futures. A recent success story is their social enterprise, Big Loop Bikes, which launched a bike hub in partnership with Queens University in Belfast to provide bike leasing and servicing for students and staff.
As well as providing financial support through the Grants Committee, A&O donated IT equipment for The Turnaround Project when they were establishing themselves as a charity, and several of our IT team – Scott Murdock, Mark Rushby and Paul Caffery – helped to set up their equipment, install and configure software and now continue to provide ongoing IT support. Small charities often don’t have these sorts of resources in-house, so the skills we have within our business teams – as well as legal teams – are valuable and can save them considerable time and money.
Describe your perfect day off work
An early morning bike ride out to the Glens of Antrim on a dry, sunny day. Headwind out, tailwind home, and back in time for a good lunch. In the afternoon doing something productive around the house while listening to a podcast, before making dinner for my family. My perfect day off would finish with a couple of glasses of something agreeable in front of the TV.
Which is your favourite city in the world and why?
As a northerner it pains me to say it, but London. There is always so much to see and do and it’s been the location for so many great times with friends and family. Oxford is a close second as it’s where I met my wife and some of my best friends.
Tell us something not many people know about you
The second single I ever bought was ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ by Belinda Carlisle.
Who do you admire in the world, and why?
Paul McCartney. He’s musical genius who has given so much joy to the world, and to me. He also seems like a thoroughly nice man.
What is your proudest achievement in community investment?
The Belfast office’s local charity partnership with Sands Northern Ireland is the thing I’m most proud of since I joined the Pro Bono and Community Investment Committee here. Previous local partnerships have been successful, but this has set a very high standard – the amount of effort from the committee and involvement from colleagues across the office has been overwhelming.
Sands is a stillbirth and neonatal death charity that operates across the UK to support anyone affected by the death of a baby. Its branch in Northern Ireland is a volunteer-led group that works to improve the care bereaved parents receive, as well as to promote research and collaborate with other organisations to reduce the loss of babies’ lives.
We first became involved with Sands when the charity supported our colleague Gary Tearle and his wife Julie, following the stillbirth of their daughter Sarah. Gary has since dedicated significant support to Sands and we made Sands NI our local charity partner in Belfast in 2019. Since then, Gary has mobilised colleagues to raise over GBP25,000 – GBP5,000 of which he and three colleagues raised themselves by completing a skydive. He has also helped to find volunteers in the office to assemble memory boxes and knit blankets for bereaved families.
The amount of money raised is incredible, none of which would have happened without Gary. His drive, energy and willingness to speak openly about his own experiences have touched everyone. I’m proud that we’ve been able to support him, and I hope our next local partnership can achieve even half of what Gary and the rest of the committee has with Sands NI.
What words of advice would you give to someone interested in getting involved in community investment work?
I would say, do it! There really is something for everyone, whatever your skills and interests – and if the right opportunities aren’t obvious to you, you can always create your own.