The Foundation considers work which others may find hard to fund, perhaps because it breaks new ground, appears too risky, requires core funding, or needs a more unusual form of financial help such as a loan. The key areas for the Foundation are the arts, education and learning, the environment and social change. The Foundation is also known for starting initiatives themselves where new thinking is required or where it believes there are important unexplored opportunities, such as its "Rethinking Crime & Punishment" initiative in 2002–2005.
The Foundation is based in Kings Cross, London, and has a staff of approximately twenty-eight. Trustees include James Hughes-Hallett (chairman), Sir David Bell, Tom Chandos, Joe Docherty, John Fairbairn, Beatrice Hollond, Thomas Hughes-Hallett, Kate Lampard, Sir Jonathan Phillips and William Sieghart, Eleanor Updale.
Esmée Fairbairn played a prominent role in developing the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the Citizens Advice Bureaux before being killed in an air raid towards the end of the Second World War. The Foundation was set up as a memorial to Esmée by her husband Ian Fairbairn. Her sons Paul and Oliver Stobart also contributed generously to the original trust fund as co-founders. In 1999 the Foundation sold its holding in M&G in a takeover of the company by Prudential Corporation PLC. The sale resulted in a significant rise in the value of the Foundation's endowment and consequently in the size of its grantmaking.