Anthony Horowitz

March 6, 2011

Earlier in the week my firm hosted a fantastic event for the National Literacy Trust (one of our main charity partners); a fundraising lecture delivered by Anthony HorowitzI’ve written elsewhere about the palaver surrounding the dinner we also hosted and my dress-buying carry-on, but I didn’t actually say why the event was being held in the first place and what it was like.

The NLT has known for a while that it needed to develop some additional funding streams – it’s received some good government grants in the past (and quite rightly so, given that the Trust’s work has mirrored very well the various policy aims regarding literacy), but all of its funding has been cut.  The people who run the NLT are not the type to sit around and bemoan the facts, though; instead, they’ve been hugely resourceful and have started finding revenue opportunities and other ways to find financial support for the charity’s great work.

The event we hosted was designed to launch a new and pretty cool-sounding fundraising strategy, so the charity wanted to do it with a bang; Anthony Horowitz was the man for the job.  He delivered a 40-minute lecture entitled ‘Literacy: The State of the Nation’ and it was fantastic: really entertaining, but also challenging and thought-provoking.  He certainly didn’t feel obliged to toe the NLT party line: the charity is unashamedly populist when it comes to encouraging people (and young people in particular) to read, reasoning that the act of reading can be encouraged through many media.  Horowitz was completely frank in his opinions of ‘junk’ books (Dan Brown came in for quite a caning), although he did acknowledge later in the lecture that authors like Brown, for all their literary flaws, do know how to tell a good and fast-paced story.

More than anything, the Horowitz lecture was properly inspiring.  I have loved working with the cause for the past few years because I believe passionately that literacy is the cornerstone of a happy, productive and engaged life: reading sparks our imaginations, enables us to participate fully as citizens and provides us with the most basic tools we need to support ourselves.  Adults with poor literacy – and in the UK that’s one in six adults (with a reading age of no greater than 11 years old) – are virtually disenfranchised; unable to debate issues, read the considered opinions of others, or play any active role in the running of a country.  If you talk to those who are represented in the worst statistics in society – prison populations, communities surviving on benefits, the unemployed – the chances of encountering people with literacy problems are very high.

Horowitz spoke so eloquently of the purpose of literacy and – equally importantly – the pleasure afforded by literacy.  He described the joy of curling up with a good book, or discovering a new author that you love and then discovering that there is an entire body of work with which to acquaint yourself, and the entire audience sighed in recognition.

Anyway, the lecture seemed to serve its purpose: there were a lot of filled donation envelopes handed in at the end of the evening!


‘Feminists’ and eyebrows

December 13, 2010

According to the Telegraph, ‘feminists’ are refusing to tame their eyebrows during the month of December: a facial hair fundraising movement to rival Movember.  They’ve renamed the month ‘Decembrow’.

Decembrow, inspired by the huge popularity of the unibrow in Tajikistan, is the female counterpart to Movember – a moustache-growing charity event held during November to raise money and awareness for men’s health issues, including prostate cancer.

Unsurprisingly, there have already been disparaging comments from anti-feminist groups, such as the religious group Concerned Women for America, whose CEO thinks it is “curious that feminists would choose to embrace facial hair”, before quipping: “How is that different than any other month of the year?” Well, considering how often the words “hairy” and “feminist” appear in the same sentence, we may as well live up to the stereotypes for a good cause.

I have disparaging comments to make about this, for two reasons:

  1. I really hate ungroomed eyebrows.  Seriously; a person’s eyebrows are one of the first things I notice about their face.  Tristan things that it’s hilarious, the degree to which I notice eyebrows.  He has perfect eyebrows, by the way – so perfect that I have long suspected him of indulging in illicit male grooming sessions.
  2. I hate this kind of use of the word ‘feminist’ with the burning power of one hundred suns.  I am a feminist.  You are a feminist.  Anybody who believes that women are entitled to the same rights and considerations as men is a feminist.  This means that most men I know are also feminists.  I get hugely frustrated by women who reject the term ‘feminist’ because of the political connotations of the word.  We should sort this out and de-politicise it as a word.  I’m firmly with Sars when it comes to the whole ‘feminist’ issue.  If you really want to learn more about my views on this kind of thing, visit the old version of this blog and look under the ‘stuff I believe’ tag: you’ll find a few rants (and rants about all sorts of things, now I look at it – I’m quite ranty when the mood takes me).

Movember is fantastic.  I have a couple of friends who take part nearly every year and delight me with their facial hair exploits.  When I’m Queen of the world, Movember participation will be complusory for all men.  I think that it works so well because it’s fun: men like growing silly moustaches and the rest of us like looking at them.  However, Decembrow sounds far too unfocused to be of any great value.  It’s so humourless.  And it’s assuming that all women are constantly battling a unibrow.  I don’t have a unibrow.  I’m such a bad feminist!

I do, however, like the idea of Frocktober, where women commit to wearing a different frock every day during October and raise money to fight ovarian cancer.  That’s the kind of fundraising that I could get behind.

Poppy drama

December 10, 2010

All hell has broken loose in New Zealand, due to the decision by the RSA (the New Zealand version of the Royal British Legion) to take production of its poppies off-shore (for non British or Kiwi readers who may not know what I’m on about: replica poppies are sold every year, to raise money to support war veterans).

The reason for the strong negative reaction is the news that the local production was undertaken by a Christchurch-based organisation called Kilmarnock Enterprises, which made 1.3 million poppies every year and which provided training and work for people with intellectual disabilities – they made the poppies.

The whole issue is making me really cross, for two reasons.

Firstly: the RSA is totally within its rights to do this, and I think that it’s making a good decision.  The RSA, like every charity, should have only one objective: to do its best to support its beneficiaries.  By shifting the poppy production off-shore, it will reduce the production costs by NZ$150,000 each year; money which will it will use to offer a greater level of support to veterans.   By failing to acknowledge this, I think that the New Zealand public has demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of charities.

Of course, it is a terrible shame that the training and work opportunities of intellectually disabled adults will be affected by the RSA’s decision.  However, this isn’t the RSA’s problem.  The solution, as I see it, is for somebody to recognise the value of the work and subsidise Kilmarnock Enterprises, to enable it to reduce its cost to the RSA and retain the contract.  But the two issues are totally separate: the provision of training and work for intellectually disabled adults; and the provision of support and services for veterans.  The latter issue is the RSA’s responsibility; the former issue is not.

Secondly: I think that the public reaction and threats of boycotting future ANZAC Day poppy sales are hypocritical in the extreme.  As is common in most first world countries in recent times, the manufacturing sector has been severely affected by the decision to send production off-shore.  In New Zealand, the discount store The Warehouse is one of the most successful brands, and you can rest assured that virtually everything for sale there is produced abroad.  The same is true of a whole range of brands.  Glassons doesn’t sell its clothes so cheaply because of amazing management practices; it does so because it produces everything elsewhere, in countries where labour costs are lower.

Now, the New Zealand public is perfectly happy to stomach this kind of thing for the most part, when it means that they can buy what they want at a reasonable price.  People in New Zealand lose jobs because of it, but it doesn’t result in boycotts of The Warehouse, or Glassons.  The companies in question send their production off-shore solely to reduce production costs and increase profit margins, and everybody is fine about it.

The RSA is trying to reduce its production costs for a far more altruistic reason: to increase the amount of money available to support people in need.  This should be applauded, not criticised.  The New Zealand public should be celebrating the fact that a charity is looking to run itself as efficiently as possible.  Instead, they’re happily putting up with off-shore manufacturing in order to make money for company shareholders, but are not willing to put up with it when the outcome will be increased support for veterans.  And these are the same people who claim that, through its decision, the RSA is somehow ‘betraying’ New Zealand values.  Unbelievable. 

And like I said earlier, there’s nothing stopping anybody from setting up a charity to support the provision of work and training for the affected adults, thus enabling them to compete with the off-shore producers and retain the contract. Of all the incensed New Zealanders who claim that they will now boycott an amazing cause, I wonder how many will have the gumption and dedication to set up or financially support that charity?  Indeed, I wonder how much money they currently donate to support employability skills training for disabled people?  Or how stringently they insist on only buying New Zealand Made products in every other areas of their lives?


December 6, 2010

The BBC has made a three-part series called ‘Age of the Do-Gooders’, presented by Ian Hislop (who I love).  I watched part one over the weekend, having recorded it during the week.  It was splendid – all about Victorian philanthropists and social pioneers: people who totally changed the world by refusing to acknowledge that, as individuals, they may not be able to address huge problems and help other people.

What struck me was the way in which a few modern people, when interviewed about the various Victorians Hislop was discussing, commented along the lines of ‘of course, that would never work now – people are so different/selfish’.  It wasn’t pointed out that this is exactly what would have been said to the original Do-Gooders when they announced that they were going to tackle the problem of slum housing or whatever. 

And it’s obviously not true of the modern world, either – there are any number of modern examples of people who, through their individual endeavours, manage to improve considerably the lives of those less fortunate than them.  I think that people like to believe that problems are unsolveable and situations are hopeless because it makes them feel better about not taking action themselves.  I also think that people don’t believe that their individual effort will make enough of a difference.  But it’s like my homegirl Mother Theresa said:

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

And also:

“Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything.”

(that last one quote is apropos of nothing, but I think that those are good words to live by)

And let’s not forget the wise words of the main man, Mahatma Gandhi:

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Anyway, I don’t usually favour the literary spin-offs of TV programmes, but I hope that there’s an Age of the Do-Gooders book coming out.  It’s all very inspiring stuff.

Giving What We Can

December 6, 2010

Unsurprisingly, given my bleeding heart tendencies, I’m quite taken with the idea of Giving What We Can, a movement that encourages people to make a public pledge to donate at 10% of their income from now until the day that they retire, in order to fight extreme poverty in the developing world.  10% may sound like quite a lot, but I’m certain that I could do it without missing it (although it would mean fewer magazines and items of clothing, neither of which would materially reduce my quality of living).

I like that the focus is squarely on the developing world, and not just charitable support in general.  As the website explains:

Giving What We Can focuses exclusively upon the world’s poorest nations because that is where a donation can do the most good. For example, suppose we want to help those who are blind. We can help blind people in a developed country like the United States by paying to train a guide dog. This is more expensive than most people realize and costs around $50,000 to train a dog and teach its recipient how to make best use of it. In contrast, there are millions of people in developing countries who remain blind for lack of a cheap and safe eye operation. For the same amount of money as training a single guide dog, we could completely cure enough people of Trachoma-induced blindness to prevent a total of 2,600 years of blindness. If you look at the charity comparisons section of this website, you will see many more examples like this about how a given donation can achieve vastly more in developing countries than it ever could in developed countries. There is thus a very strong argument in favour of giving to those living abroad.

Moreover, waiting until we fix our own problems may mean waiting forever. Compared to other parts of the world, we have been experiencing unrivalled prosperity for a very long time. If we can’t help those far less fortunate than ourselves now, when will we?

Although I’m still working my way through the website, it looks to be very well thought-out (and, reassuringly, well-written).  The idea is that it’s an honour system, pretty much: you make the pledge, your name is published, and each year you send the founders of GWWC confirmation of your income and the amount that you’ve given to relevant charities.  And that’s it.  And really, it’s the oldest philanthropic idea in the book, isn’t it?  The concept of tithing lasted for centuries and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be made relevant to the modern world.

Anyway, I obviously don’t know whether this is something that I will do (living, as I do, in Joint Finances Land), but it’s good food for thought.

Christmas party no. 1

December 2, 2010

Last night the firm held its annual drinks party for Community Affairs; an opportunity to bring together all of the charities and schools we support and give them lots of lovely mulled wine and canapes.  This year we also made our volunteers a big feature of the event and told them how wonderful we think they are. 

The event went well, despite a few last-minute drop-outs because of the snow.  It’s fairly difficult to fail to run a good event when you have the following factors in your favour:

  • The 1 December date, making this the official start of the Christmas Party Season and ensuring that your guests are yet to get fed up with Christmas functions;
  • Snowy scenes outside, making everybody more inclined to drink mulled wine;
  • Lovely mulled wine (seriously, it’s such good stuff when it’s made well);
  • Tasty festive canapes, including mince pies for those weirdos that actually like them;
  • Two children’s choirs to entertain the troops with Christmas carols – how hard would your heart have to be, in order to resist shiny-faced youngsters, tinsel wrapped around their heads, singing ‘Away in the Manger’?;
  • Fantastic guests from schools and charities, all of whom love the firm because it supports their work with money and volunteers;
  • Fantastic volunteers who put in so much effort to support our projects;
  • Lots of partners attending and telling everybody how wonderful they are;
  • Christmas trees in the main client reception, covered in fairy lights and looking fantastic; and
  • An amazing in-house events team, who run things so effortlessly and efficiently that it’s as if there is a group of magic fairies at work.

I got a special shout-out from our senior partner for all of my efforts, and a few guests came up and told me how they’d been raving about me to every partner that crossed their path.  So that’s nice!

I’ve got to say, though; hosting an event like this is a bit like being the bride at a big wedding (and one that your managers are attending – eek!)  I feel so responsible with regard to our external guests, so I spent a lot of the time checking that everybody had somebody nice to talk to, which can be hard work when it seems that everybody wants to talk to me and, in some cases, engage me in long and intense conversations about specific projects.  But it all went smoothly and it was great to catch up with some of my mates from various charities.

And then I trekked home and ate a cupcake and some jelly babies for dinner, while watching Masterchef Australia and The Apprentice on Sky Plus.

Reading to dogs

November 29, 2010

I love this new initiative from the National Literacy Trust (one of my firm’s main partner charities, staffed by some of the coolest people you could ever hope to meet):

Thousands of highly trained dogs are being primed for calls from schools looking for a sympathetic, and furry, ear for children with reading difficulties. The Pets as Therapy charity has 4,500 dogs throughout the UK trained to go into residential homes, hospitals and hospices to provide comfort, companionship and therapy.

Now the organisation is preparing to launch Read2Dogs to schools nationwide, following the success of a year-long pilot scheme at Westfields Junior School in Yateley, Hampshire. Polly the greyhound visited the junior school with her owner once a week last year to listen to children reading. The school found all 20 pupils who took part in the scheme felt more confident about reading afterwards and while three children had read aloud to their parents four times a week before the trial, all of them did afterwards. They also found that 60 per cent of pupils made three months’ progress in reading ability in just six weeks.

That’s a pretty impressive improvement in children’s reading ability!  My only complaint is the use of ‘2’ in the name. I really hate anything that promotes less-than-perfect literacy (particularly when it’s part of a literacy scheme…!)