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It was founded in 1930 with a two million pound grant by Edward Harkness, an American philanthropist. The trust's inaugural board were Stanley Baldwin, Sir James Irvine, Sir Josiah Stamp, John Buchan and Hugh Macmillan; its first secretary was former civil servant, Thomas Jones.
Whereas it is acknowledged by all the Great Britain in the War spent her resources freely in the common cause and in the years which have elapsed since Peace has sustained honourably and without complaint a burden which has gravely increased the difficulties of life for her people; And whereas the Donor feels himself bound by many ties of affection to the land from which he draws his descent and desires to show his admiration for what Great Britain has done by a gift to be used for some of her more urgent needs; And whereas he hopes that such a gift wisely applied may assist not only in tiding over the present time of difficulty but in promoting her future well-being...
In 1940 the Trust funded a scheme "Recording the changing face of Britain" established by the Committee for the Employment of Artists in Wartime, part of the Ministry of Labour and National Service. Led by Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, it employed artists to record the home front in Britain, running until 1943. It was motivated by a desire to record and reflect the landscape, already undergoing a period of rapid change through urbanisation and changes in agriculture and further threatened by bombing and other effects of war. Some of the sixty three artists directly commissioned included John Piper, Sir William Russell Flint, Charles Knight, Malvina Cheek, George Hooper, Clifford Ellis, Raymond Teague Cowern and Rowland Hilder. A further thirty four artists contributed to the final total of over 1500 works. The collection was donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum by the Trust in 1949. Over a hundred works comprising the "Recording Scotland" part of the same scheme are held at the Museum Collections Unit, University of St. Andrews.
Today, the trust makes grants of roughly 2 million pounds each year. Around 60% of these funds are given to preservation projects, particularly those aimed at preserving the fabric of architecturally or historically significant buildings, or those aimed at preserving historically interesting artifacts or documents. The trust has a particular interest in the preservation of historic churches and their contents. The remaining funds are allocated to social welfare causes, particularly projects which assist those misusing alcohol and drugs, and projects in prisons, including those that seek alternatives to custody. The trust is a principal contributor to the collaborative National Cataloguing Grants Scheme operated in conjunction with The National Archives.