If you ever spend time in Hampstead, it is likely that you will see an electric car emblazoned with green leaves zipping around, with a lady in a colourful dress at the wheel. Or you will see the car plugged in, its battery charging, off a small side street which is the base of Dame Hilary Blume, and the Charities Advisory Trust.
Dame Hilary is the charity entrepreneur eminence, creator of initiatives ranging from the Good Gifts Catalogue to The Green Hotel in India, to Peace Oil – an initiative that brings together Israeli and Palestinian farmers on the foothills of the Carmel Mountains to produce Olive Oil. The Charities Advisory Trust, the organisation that she founded in 1979 and continues to direct, is an umbrella for these enterprises and more, and has generated over £100 million in the past 30 years, which is channelled to an array of causes (in full disclosure, of which my organisation, Survivors Fund (SURF), is a beneficiary).
Born in London and brought up in Manchester, Dame Hilary inherited strong values from her parents. “They were very good people, always going out of their way to help others, whether visiting neighbours who were ill, or in the case of a friend of my father’s who went bankrupt, helping him to set up in business again. Though not wealthy, they could certainly be classed as comfortable, but were never ‘showy’ with their money. Charity was just central to their social life, playing in charity bridge tournaments and active in WIZO and the League of Jewish Women.”
Her father, Henry Braverman, was the eldest son of immigrant parents, and left school at 15 to help support the family. “The step he took out of poverty was a far greater step than any I had to make.”
At age 8, she remembers her first experience of fundraising, “shaking a bucket, collecting for the planting of trees in Israel for the JNF.” Her interest in horticulture continues to this day, as a patron of Trees for London and proud winner of the Best Front Garden in Camden Award.
Being brought up in a family in which everyday life would involve helping others when asked, has remained her guiding philosophy today. “People who knew me when I was younger, would tell you that I have changed amazingly little.” She is not afraid to say exactly how she sees it, and how she expects things to be done.
How she has changed has come with the opportunities unavailable to her growing up. “Though I have always been religious, and had an interest in Jewish history, I just never was given the chance to study. It is a wonder now how little I was taught despite having a Jewish education, though that was likely true for most Jewish girls in Manchester in the 1950s.”
That is an opportunity that she now relishes, studying Talmud which she says “is like taking my brain out for a walk.” It is from that study that her philosophy of giving originates. She gives 10% of her income. “My notion of giving a small amount, is much larger than most people, but I think for those that do give 10% they will find themselves naturally giving more.”
Giving is an art, not an exact science, for Dame Hilary. She recognises that, like for many others, it is often guided by sentimental motives, as to what appeals emotionally. “The reality is that different causes interest different people. Some appeal, some don’t. However generally I give to those that take the trouble of asking, unless I have very strong feelings about it.”
She is Co-Chair of Finnart House School Trust, which helps needy Jewish students in the UK to fund college and university, “an issue that has become particularly pressing in recent years, of which very few people in the community seem aware.” Her involvement grew out of a family connection, as her late father-in-law was the Chairman.
It is on this note, that it becomes evident that Dame Hilary is just one half of a charity double act, as her husband, Michael Norton, is equally prolific. A merchant banker turned social activist, he transformed the charity world by setting up the Directory of Social Change – which today is the leading source of information and training to the community and voluntary sector – and more recently by establishing the unLTD foundation, set up with an endowment of £100 million from the Millennium Commission, which funds new ideas of social entrepreneurs to bring positive change across the UK.
Her son, Toby Blume, is also in the charity world, Chief Executive of the Urban Forum, which supports communities to have a greater say over decisions that affect them. He recently was nominated as the most admired charity chief executive, an award that Dame Hilary believes that she would never win, “Toby is much more likeable than me.”
Her giving to non-Jewish causes is out her belief in supporting the widow, orphan and the stranger. ”You only need a little imagination to realise how hard life is for some people. God’s bounty is not just for us in the West.” Her funding extends from supporting Dalit girls into education and employment in India, to helping genocide widows and orphans in Rwanda sustainably farm (through the charity I direct, SURF).
“These are causes that I was introduced to, and continue to support, as I believe in them. They are helping the needy and vulnerable, as small charities that make a big difference in the lives of many. I believe that once I give money, then the money is out of my hands to control. So it is important that I can trust those organisations I support. Administration is critical to keep a charity going, but too many big charities waste too much money.”
It was through training and seminars that Dame Hilary first began guiding big charities to trade more effectively and the Charities Advisory Trust was set up. Thirty years on it continues to do so.
In concluding the interview, I ask her advice on how we can get more people to follow her lead. “Simple,” she says. “I feel you should ask on behalf of those that have no voice, and to get people to give more, you just need to ask more. People give when asked, and people don’t ask enough. I ask people all the time to give, and they are terribly shocked.”
Her new initiative, is Happy Givers, through which she is planning to support amongst other new causes, the Memorial Scrolls Trust (which repairs scrolls damaged by the Nazis) “because I like Torah.” She recently commissioned a new Torah scroll to be written by Josh Baum (see Jewish Renaissance, July 2007).
Happy Givers aims to encourage young Jews to give more. “Giving brings lasting happiness, not hardship. It should be enjoyable, and sociable.”
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, April 2010 Issue.
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