Recently, I was asked to be a trustee of Team Domenica, a charity that helps youngsters with learning disabilities find meaningful work. I have a family friendship with Rosa Monckton, the founder. I hesitated slightly because I worried that I would not be able to give the time and commitment needed. But I admire Rosa so much for dedicating her time and astonishing energy to the cause that in the end I couldn’t refuse.
I hope my experience in the hospitality industry will be of specific use to her in the café set-up in Brighton, where there is also a training centre. It is nice to think that my skill sets will on this occasion be as useful as my money. I need to spend more time there so that I have a better understanding of the challenges their candidates face, as I see my involvement as being for the long haul. I am under no illusions about how hard it will be to accomplish Rosa’s aim of helping young disabled adults to find regular employment.
Some time ago I filmed a programme for the BBC about the difficulties faced by veterans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Naïvely, I imagined that it would just be a matter of getting businesses onside. My starting point was the hospitality industry in Britain, as every hotelier moans about the difficulty of finding older and more reliable candidates who take their jobs seriously and are interested in working long-term.
But I had not taken into account just how debilitating the veterans’ mental health problems could become even after periods when they appeared to be better; how those suffering struggle to be honest with work superiors and colleagues, and so appear unacceptably and incomprehensibly erratic; and how much support and mentoring would be required.
Our occasional successes were soon tempered by the dawning understanding of just how intractable the problems were and how little headway we were making, despite our fervent efforts.
At least that has prepared me a little better for the job I have taken on at Team Dominica, and enabled me to appreciate different measures of success. Rosa tells me that we have many committed corporate partners – just as I had with the veterans – who are prepared to change the parameters of their expectations in order to give these young people a chance at some of the advantages we take so much for granted: the right to work and be fulfilled, to have friendships, to contribute.
Long ago I decided to focus on charities that emphasise our shared humanity. I think, in general, it is quite tempting to turn our faces away from certain kinds of misery in the fear that it will somehow be catching. There are many problems that are so big that it seems impossible that there will ever be a solution, and it would be easy to feel that this absolves us from the need to continue making the effort to solve them.
I find it much more satisfying to give money where there is an observable effect. But I know it is important to remember that the people suffering agonies in Yemen, for example, are not different from me, and that my many blessings in life are mostly a matter of good luck rather than good judgment.
For similar reasons I support the homelessness charity Shelter. When I was at Oxford I regularly volunteered at a homeless young people’s hostel, and saw at first hand the complex problems that had sent these 16- to 24-year-olds out on the street, and then kept them there, despite the heroic efforts of the professionals attached to the shelter. They included family breakdowns, violence, mental health issues, drugs and alcohol dependency. We cannot solve the problems of homelessness, but we can attempt to help mitigate the misery.
I try to participate locally too. Holy Trinity, Clapham, is my Anglican church, and this winter I got involved in their multi-church programme for rough sleepers. I will get more involved again next year. It is viscerally satisfying to provide a meal and company, focusing on an immediate and achievable outcome, even if it is for just one night at a time.
Trinity Hospice is at the end of my road, and one day I took up the invitation on permanent display on its noticeboard to ask for a tour of the facilities. I was impressed by their in-patient rooms and humbled by the number of people they help with their home-visiting programme. But I was dismayed by the funds they had to find year after year to keep on serving the community. It is now five years since I have been fundraising for them: they need to find £9 million annually to continue caring for 2,500 people across seven boroughs of London, either in their own homes or at their in-patient facility.
I recognise, of course, that there is an element of self-interest in supporting a local hospice, as well as a superstitious hope that if you give them money, you might be spared from one day needing their services.
I know that I am not alone in struggling to decide which good cause most needs my money when faced by the numerous extremely deserving causes that request it. It is encouraging to remember that there are many ways to contribute, not only financially, but also with my business skill set, and that my readiness to roll up my sleeves and listen is sometimes, and to some people, just as valuable.