Norwood president and publishing tycoon Richard DESMOND tells of his joy at giving tzedakah and how he selects where it goes. [divider]
By rights, I should have given up on charity fundraising when I was 10.
I certainly had a good enough reason to do so, as my first experience of raising money got me into a whole heap of trouble. It had started out well enough, with me selling programmes door-to-door for local charities on behalf of my school Christ’s College in Finchley.
I took it very seriously, which ten-year-old boys seldom do, and sold more than anyone else, which earned the class a coach trip to Southend. A day trip to the coast was exciting stuff back then.
So exciting that time slipped by on the pier and I was late getting back to the coach, which meant I ended up getting the cane.
Not exactly a flying start to fundraising, but I wasn’t put off, not least of all because of the influence of my elder brother, Gerry, who was very keen on doing things for charity and put on amateur dramatic shows for Norwood in the days when it was an orphanage. As I got older, my inclination was to give even when I didn’t feel I had the money. That was very much the case when I was contacted for the first time by a charity, The London Federation of Boys’ Clubs.
It turned out to be a valuable lesson: I donated £300, which I couldn’t afford, but I didn’t go broke – and actually got richer in every sense.
These days, I am glad to say, the question of whether I can afford to give is no longer relevant and others are aware of that. As a result, my phone rings constantly – almost on the hour – with requests from UK charities of all kinds and that means prioritising.
The criteria for giving and supporting is different for every philanthropist as all causes are worthy, but the decision for me to get involved is based on whether I know the person and if I can make a difference. And the project also has to be straightforward to deal with.
Some big charities can be very aggressive in the way they try to get donations and at least half of what they raise goes towards their overheads. But there are other charities that just capture your imagination and I try to direct my support towards them. In January, I visited a Health Lottery-funded project in Shadwell, East London, with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
It’s an outdoor adventure playground that has been there since the sixties and used by three generations of youngsters. They were nice people, the project is fantastic and I could see what a huge difference it makes for everyone in the area. The money raised by The Health Lottery – which started in 2011 – allows them to stay open four days a week. It would be nice if we could help them stay open seven days a week.
Becoming involved with Norwood was inevitable, as my connection goes back to when I was little and watched my brother’s shows. In later life, I came to the charity through being part of the Variety Club, which my father Cyril helped set up in the 1950s. I was on the Sunshine Coach Committee, which led me to visit Ravenswood (now part of Norwood) to check it had the resources to be able to take on a Sunshine Coach.
Once I was there, I knew I had to help and, at the age of 40, was asked to be chairman, which I declined, but became president in 2006. My main responsibilities are to help the team open doors that might otherwise be closed to them and make the whole thing feel younger and more fun.
A lot of my involvement is just the sheer hard work of helping to raise funds and for an hour of every day, I am either repaying a favour or calling in a favour. And that’s seven days a week.
When it comes down to it, the real trigger for me to support a charity is driven by the individual at the helm. There has to be something about them that makes them stand out. A person who wants to do the impossible and then makes it happen.
And someone who has a low overhead, so I can see they are doing it for the right reasons. Last year my son, Robert, and I went with Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Barry Marcus to Belarus to look at work I’m funding through World Jewish Relief.
We met an absolutely fantastic guy, Rabbi Moshe Fhima, who is building the Beis Aharon orphanage and school in Pinsk. Born in Manchester and the father of seven children, he is an inspirational guy who had me climbing ladders to look at the roof, meeting all the children and looking at the building site that is going to be the next orphanage development.
Along the way, he told me the history of every object, painting and pencil, all of which he was responsible for getting! It is that kind of person who gets my attention. To get my respect, just do what you already do and don’t expect me to do everything for you.
My decision to get involved can also stem from a personal experience, so when my own eyesight was threatened and I was faced with the possibility of going blind, the treatment I received at Moorfields Eye Hospital led to me funding the creation of a new children’s unit that carries my name.
I receive letters every week from parents whose children have received world-beating treatment that has changed their lives. The unit will always have a special place in my heart. Being a father inevitably impacts on the way I feel about charity and I certainly involve my two children in the charities I support and I am also very proud of what they take on for themselves.
Robert has raised money for many charities, including Norwood, Great Ormond Street and the Disability Foundation. Last month my wife Joy and I took our daughter to JCoSS, where Angel donated a Sunshine Coach to the school. It’s the second coach she has donated.
My wall is full of Sunshine Coach plaques, and Angel is now creating her own section. It would be nice, by the time she is 19, to have 19 plaques. Singling out contributions I’ve made that fill me with the most pride is hard as I’m proud of all of them. Every time you hear another story about how the support has helped, or get a moving letter from someone, you feel it was worth it.
Of late, the orphanage in Pinsk has become very important to me as you only have to see it to know how it changes children’s lives. To choose one cause over another is impossible as they are all crucial. But when pushed for an answer I think I’m most proud – and grateful – to be in a position to help.