Digging with my pen

With Thomas Guy

Raising glass with Thomas Guy to the hospital in his name

I’ve been reflecting on my commitment to focusing my PR services on charities, social enterprises, and other organisations involved in improving people’s lives.

In this blog post I take a closer look at the notion of charity, and why working with the third sector holds such a strong appeal for me.

The term ‘charity’ has its origins in the Latin ‘caritas’ meaning preciousness, or dearness, and in Christian theology became the standard translation for the Greek word, Αγάπε, meaning ‘unlimited loving kindness to others’.

In 1601 the Charities Uses Act first described a charitable purpose and in 1891 Lord Edward Macnaghten set out the four categories of charitable trusts as: “Trusts for the relief of poverty; trusts for the advancement of education; trusts for the advancement of religion; and trusts for other purposes beneficial to the community”.

Today, the Charity Commission regulates over 180,000 charities in England and Wales with purposes ranging from the protection of animals to the promotion of the arts, although charities whose purposes are directed towards improving ill-health and poverty continue to loom large.

The role and status of the charitable sector has evolved over the centuries and it now works in partnership with the government, councils and health commissioning bodies to deliver services tailored to address the needs of particular groups in society.

Historically, charity and Christianity have been closely entwined, with the giving of donations, or ‘alms’, a way for church-goers to help provide food, shelter and healthcare for those less fortunate than themselves. Personally, as a humanist, I believe that having compassion for others need not be the sole preserve of those practicing a particular religion.

In literature, Charles Dickens explores the personally fulfilling benefits of being charitable in his novel, A Christmas Carol, in which the mean-spirited Scrooge learns a lesson about being charitable with the help of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

But for many people working in the charitable sector, the need to make a difference goes beyond living a charitable life; it is driven by a profound desire to have a sustainable impact on society, or the world at large.

Here I highlight how this personal determination to make a tangible difference is at the root of four long-established charities:

  • Thomas Guy, a bible maker who made a fortune in the ‘South Sea Bubble’, funded the creation of ‘a hospital for incurables’ south of the river Thames in 1721. He died in 1724 before the completion of the hospital, but bequeathed the immense sum of £219,499 towards the hospital in his will. This endowment continues to support the pioneering work of Guy’s and St Thomas Charity today.
  • The banker and philanthropist George Peabody (a contemporary of Charles Dickens) pledged to take action to alleviate the squalor experienced by many living in the London slums by establishing the Peabody Donation Fund in 1862 – and so, the concept of social housing as it is known today was first conceived. Peabody now owns and manages over 20,000 homes across London and invests millions in community support programmes.
  • In 1867, Thomas Barnardo, an aspiring medical missionary, abandoned his plans to travel to China to set up a school for impoverished boys in the East End of London. Alongside the NSPCC his name is now uppermost in the public’s consciousness for its work in transforming the lives of the most vulnerable children in the UK.
  • Joseph Rowntree, a Quaker who founded the renowned chocolate works in York, established his charitable enterprise to tackle the root causes of social inequality some 110 years ago. Today the Joseph Rowntree Foundation continues to work in the spirit of its founder’s wishes, undertaking research into poverty and social exclusion, as well as working in partnership to promote inclusion, and influence policy.

What these charities all share, is not only the legacy and vision of their historical figureheads, but an ability to evolve to meet changing need and the environmental (political and social) context in which they operate.

Ultimately, as a communicator, what strikes me most is that they each possess a strong narrative – not only about their inspiring founders, but about the impact of their work and what they are contributing to the wider body of knowledge. They are not ‘only’ doing good for their principal beneficiaries – they are carrying out vital research, bringing about fresh thinking and influencing new policy.

Of course, unlike the shining examples above, there are many less well known charities doing incredible work and making a real difference in the world, yet struggling to be heard above the competition and requiring help telling their story… and that’s where I hope to play my part.

Returning to my original question now about my choice to work with the third sector (and other organisations with a social purpose), the answer is crystal clear in my mind: it’s simply because having an impact on people’s lives, health, life chances or making a difference to the environment in which our children and grandchildren will grow up in provides a personal reward and satisfaction beyond the thrill of gaining headlines – although naturally, I get a buzz from that too.

Quite simply I am motivated to do my job well because I feel as passionately about the charities and causes I work with as they do.

Like the late Seamus Heaney, inspired by the industriousness of his forefathers working on the Irish peat lands… I’ll dig with my pen.

 Kate Dawson, Director, Well Read PR

Related links:

Definition of ‘charity’ – wikipedia

Charity Commission

British Humanist Association

Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity



Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Poetry Foundation – Digging by Seamus Heaney

Image [picture of me with an actor dressed as Thomas Guy at the opening of Guy’s Hospital mini museum]

Caption: Raising a glass with Thomas Guy to the hospital in his name.


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