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The funding crunch

Britain’s broadcasting dynasty the Dimblebys have run a cancer charity for almost half a century, but tough times mean they are thinking hard about its future.
Dimbleby Cancer Care was set up after Richard Dimbleby's death from cancer

For two generations, the name Dimbleby has been associated with British journalism. The dynasty was founded by Richard Dimbleby, who made his name as a World War II reporter, sending the first broadcasts from Belsen. He was later famous for anchoring television broadcasts of the coronation of Elizabeth II and the state funerals of JFK and Winston Churchill. Two of his children, David and Jonathan, are today household names for their work on televised election coverage and political programmes, while two of his grandchildren, Joe and Kitty, are also journalists.

All very well for the pages of high society gossip magazines, you may think. But there is a largely unknown side to the family. For almost 50 years Dimbleby Cancer Care, a charity founded by the family following Richard’s death from testicular cancer, has been quietly partnering with major cancer charities and leading cancer centres to fund critical research projects. It also works with the UK’s National Health Service to run free drop-in services at two London hospitals, Guy’s and St Thomas’, for cancer patients and carers.

The Dimbleby family has dominated the board of trustees since inception. David (pictured, right) is chair, although Jonathan will succeed him in the role at the end of this year, when David will become a regular trustee. Their younger brother Nicholas, a sculptor, is on the board, while Joe and Kitty, David’s son Henry, founder of the healthy fast-food chain Leon, and daughter Kate are also family trustees. Other family members have come and gone.

Enthusiasm is not lacking. But money is. Times have changed since DCC was founded. When Richard died in 1965 the family asked people to send money so they could start a charity. They did, in envelopes stuffed with cash. But these days things are done differently, of course, and the long-term economic slump in the UK and Europe is forcing the family to rethink the way it operates. The main source of income, an endowment, is running out of cash after 46 years, while philanthropic giving is down.

DCC is run on a shoestring. Its two drop-in centres run on just £220,000 (€255,000) each year. The family’s particular corner of research – ways to help cancer patients better bear treatment, on imaging techniques to identify appropriate treatments, and on end-of-life care – doesn’t attract big money. “We’re exactly in the catch-22 of a small charity,” says Jonathan. “We can do very important work very cheaply, but because we don’t have the funds to make a huge noise about ourselves and employ fundraisers in large numbers, or spend a huge amount of money before we pull in a large amount of money, it’s quite difficult for our voice to be heard.”

The fundraising and communications expertise that DCC needs can’t be supplied by the family trustees, so they are considering bringing in outside experts. The charity is, says Jonathan, “in a state of flux”. The NHS is too, with talk about privatisation rife, and the family doesn’t know how this might affect its relationship with the hospitals. But money is the big, immediate problem. “As a family we’ve had to confront some uncomfortable realities,” says Jonathan. “We’re at a point where we have to think very hard about the best way to generate funds, and therefore the best people to be intimately involved in that. Of course this includes the family, but it must also mean other people from outside who are willing, able and have the knowledge and experience to make things happen.”

Having a board of trustees dominated by the family could be a problem for some big donors who focus on professional boards and shun any hint of nepotism. Jonathan (pictured, left) is alive to this – and philosophical about the fact that the next generation members might not be the right fit for the future. “We like to see our next generation as free and independent spirits,” he says. “One of the difficulties with young people who have their own jobs and are busy is that they just can’t find the time they want to put into a project like this, no matter how important they regard it as being. They’re travelling, they aren’t all in the same place at the same time, or their families need their time. It’s not easy. But I think the important thing is the commitment of trustees, more than anything else. It’s just romantic to imagine that because DCC was started by us it is eternally, generation through generation, run by us.”

The family did try out an external director in Malcolm Tyndall, who joined the DCC from a fundraising role with the UK’s Home Office in 2008. But when he was headhunted away two years later, the family decided not to replace him. “In retrospect we didn’t have enough time to decide whether or not a director from outside the family was a good thing,” Jonathan says. “My instinct is that to justify that post in a small charity where the principal trustees are closely involved, you have to be operating on a scale that we are not yet at.” Now, he says, they not only want this, but they need it.

“I personally wouldn’t want a situation where we have no family trustees,” Jonathan says, “but equally I don’t want a situation where merely because you are part of the family, you are in a controlling position. The work is what matters, and the funds, the delivery of the services, and the research.” That means that the board has to have people with the right calibre, and able to make a big enough commitment. “My father would not want it to be a mausoleum for his memory,” he adds. “He would want this work to progress, for his offspring to want to achieve that as effectively as possible.”

DCC – a quick view
The DCC’s service-delivery work is delivered through two NHS hospitals, St Thomas’s – perched on London’s River Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament – and Guy’s, nestled behind London’s newest landmark, the Shard.

The charity also runs three funding streams:
The Dimbleby Cancer Care Research Fund awards up to £250,000 each year, funding research into the care needs of cancer patients and is one of the very few charitable operators in that field. 

The Richard Dimbleby Chair of Cancer Research, which through an endowment to King’s College London supports the Dimbleby Laboratories, is working on imaging techniques to identify the most fitting treatments for an individual patient’s cancer. 

The Dimbleby Marie Curie Cancer Care Research Fund, a partnership with Marie Curie – one of the UK’s biggest cancer charities – funds £500,000 annually in research on end-of-life care, though this will end in 2012.

Where’s the money?
Despite the economic climate, charitable donations have not collapsed in the UK or the US. “In general those who give tend to have finances that change on a longer-term cycle,” says Professor Cathy Pharoah of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School. Some foundations have chosen to use up their money because they are worried that the cash, whose performance is tied to the market, is at risk. Some philanthropists have actually increased their giving because there is nowhere good to invest their money. Some charities struggle for other reasons. There is a market for charitable giving just like there is a market for anything else, and cancer charities with a strong focus – a brand, you might say – tend to attract more money than generalist ones. Those specialising in particular kinds of cancer, such as breast, skin or prostate, appeal more. “Unless it has a strong, distinct profile, then a cancer charity is going to have problems attracting money,” Pharoah says. There are two ways for smaller charities like DCC to attract more money, she adds. Firstly, they can merge with a larger one. Or secondly, they can leverage their networks and contacts to attract large donations from foundations. In the case of the Dimblebys, with their contacts and family name, that might be their best bet.

The view from the next generation: Kitty Dimbleby
Kitty Dimbleby (pictured, left), 32, is the youngest member of the DCC board of trustees having joined at 18.
On her reason for joining DCC As long as I can remember my father went to DCC meetings; once or twice they were even held in our family home. I would sneak downstairs and listen through the banisters, not really sure what was going on but knowing that one day I wanted to be part of it. As a child, teenager and young adult I was in and out of hospital with health problems and I met many young people living with cancer: before I turned 20, I had attended two of their funerals. It was, I am sure, this greater awareness of the illness and our mortality that compounded my childhood desire to help.
On being a teenage trustee I became a trustee at 18 but soon realised I was too young and had nothing of any use to bring to the table. I was galvanised to sign up again a few years ago when a friend was diagnosed with cancer. Now in my early 30s, having worked for a few years for the military charity Help for Heroes, I feel I could finally be useful.
On what the next generation brings to the table I think the younger generation brings something different to the charity – a fresh perspective and passion for the cause, which reignites that of the older generation. We have been able to introduce more modern methods of fundraising, such as social media. Although it is sometimes hard to get a word in, my father and uncles do listen and appreciate my input. For the charity to continue and move forward it needs us to be involved – much as they would like to, dad, David and Nick cannot keep working forever.  

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