Charity Financials Insider

First Person

31 May 2011

Former news broadcaster, Martyn Lewis, talks about chairing NCVO and his photographic pursuits

In the beginning was…

Although I was born in South Wales, I grew up in Northern Ireland so I’m really a Welsh Ulsterman! At college I spent much more time than I should have doing extra-curricular activities. I captained the rifle club, was joint secretary of the rugby club, on the debating society committee, and acted in and directed plays.

How did you get into broadcasting?

It was a complete accident. A friend of my father’s was a BBC producer in Belfast and he came to dinner. One of his programme presenters had quit that very day and he suggested I auditioned. I got the job. After a few weeks a job with a film crew came up when one of the reporters fell ill and I was hooked – the challenge of writing to pictures is phenomenal. A good TV news report should give you four minutes worth of information in two minutes. I had an aptitude for this which got me in to HTV and then ITN.

What prompted your engagement in the charity sector?

When the Duchess of Norfolk was setting up Help the Hospices she asked me for advice on who should make their promotional video. Quotes ranged from £35,000 to £85,000. So I went to my boss at ITN and asked for film and edit facilities for a week. It was a slow August – not much news about – so he said yes, and we made the video for nothing.

Then what happened?

It began my long involvement with the hospice movement, working with some amazing people and I found that was a terrific antidote to the cynicism that can crop up sometimes in the journalistic profession. So I went on to chair Drive for Youth, helping remotivate deeply disadvantaged young people, and that led to me setting up YouthNet, Britain’s first internet charity, offering a full range of help and advice to 16-25 year olds via the YouthNet then started, the national database making volunteering simple and easy.

What makes an effective chair?

The secret is to only chair organisations that have a great chief executive or the potential to get one. You need to have a CEO who knows when to involve the chair over key issues and when to just get on with it. I’ve been very lucky in that respect.

Why did you want the NCVO job?

The challenge of an umbrella organisation where you have to rationalise and bring together all the different elements of the charity world was irresistible. It was the first job interview I’d had for 40 years as I was always lucky enough to be headhunted.

What are your current challenges?

The NCVO had to cut its budget from £11m to £7m – and that meant losing some very high-calibre people – but to be a leader in the sector we too have to feel everyone’s pain. One of the ideas I want to develop is a charity doctor service. So if a charity runs into trouble, we send in teams of experts who go through the books and recommend a plan of action.

How do you think sector duplication can be tackled?

The voluntary sector delivers a wide range of services across the UK mainly because individuals who see a problem and want to do something about it have been able to set up a charity fairly easily. You don’t want to stop that, but first people should check whether there are already charities doing similar work, and see whether they could help them instead of doing their own thing. Charities can be rivals for raising money but work together in spending it; in parts of the UK Macmillan and Marie Curie nurses come under the same administrator, and the NCVO is starting to work more closely with a number of other charities.

How do you switch off?

My main hobby is photography. It may seem strange after a television career, but I love composing a picture and freezing a momentin time. I’ve recently started putting together coffee table books of my better photographs, some of them recording holidays we’ve had with friends.

What’s the last book that grabbed you?

I enjoy thrillers and biographies. Michael Dodds latest book Old Enemies is edge-of-the-seat stuff, and Tom Bower’s No Angel – The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone is a real cracker.

Most challenging times?

During my final four years at the BBC, I was privately wrestling with the news that my wife had been diagnosed with the degenerative illness Huntington’s Disease.

Best of times?

My two daughters each had a 50 per cent chance of inheriting that terrible condition. For twelve years they didn’t want to be tested for it. Then they both went off to have the test without telling me, and there were some pretty emotional moments when they told me they’d both been given the all clear. Earlier, when my wife was going into the nursing home, the girls said “Dad, you need to get yourself a life” and then I met Patsy who picked me up by the scruff of the neck and gave me a whole new lease of life.

Martyn Lewis was talking to Clarissa Dann

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Martyn Lewis

During 32 years as a television journalist Martyn Lewis presented every mainstream national news programme on Britain’s two main terrestrial channels.

After 27 years involvement in the charitable sector, he now chairs not only the NCVO, but also YouthNet, The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service Committee, and Families of the Fallen, raising extra funds for the families of servicemen and women killed in recent conflicts.

He is also president of United Response, helping people with learning disabilities, and was awarded a CBE for services to young people and the hospice movement in 1997.

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