Another Ark fundraising dinner has come and gone and I can finally get back to running my business. More importantly I can focus on the programmes that the dinner paid for. The stress started in January as Ian Wace (my partner in Ark) and I planned a thousand details for Europe’s largest charity event. It was worth it. Not only was this year’s dinner at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich the most magnificent and magical to date but we managed to raise £25.8 million in one night. It is a fabulous sum considering that most of our donors come from the financial sector and have been witnessing torrid events in the past few months. In the end it is only marginally less than the £26.6 million we raised in 2007 when everything was riding so high. I am profoundly grateful to everyone who made it such a special evening.
Ark, the charity I am chairman of, has in the past six years changed the lives of more than 65,000 children, in eastern Europe, Southern Africa and here in Britain, where education is breaking down in our inner cities. There is still much to be done. Last year, when Bill Clinton spoke at our dinner, we formed an alliance with his Foundation and are now providing training for medical technicians in Mozambique. I travelled to see a number of Ark projects in Africa last summer and met Clinton at Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday party in Johannesburg. We then visited six countries in five days. Clinton’s energy and his ability to absorb information are off the chart. It is all the more amazing considering he doesn’t sleep much at all. It is an inspiration to see the work of the Clinton Foundation in the field.
I would like to say here and now that — despite his allegation to the contrary — I did not pat Tony Blair on the bottom. It was on the lower part of his back. Tony gave the keynote speech at this year’s dinner, I was merely the warm-up man. I finished my speech and made way for him but then I realised I had left all my notes on the lectern. I turned to retrieve them but realised the great man was already set up there with my notes under his. I could hardly dislodge him so I just gave him a pat for good luck. Just a little one, but it did seem to surprise him for a moment. I was surprised to learn that Tony had never been to the Old Royal Naval College before. He was completely taken aback. In my opinion, it is Wren’s masterpiece and easily outstrips St Paul’s.
Tony had come to dinner at my home in west London about six months earlier to learn about Ark. He was naturally engaged since the city academy programme had been very much his brainchild — a public-private partnership as well as a means of introducing philanthropy into educational funding in Britain. Ark is now working on 12 academy schools, six of which will be open by September, making us the largest participant in the programme under the leadership of Lucy Heller. What Tony hadn’t known about was our international programmes, but like Clinton he has an enormous ability to absorb details and process information.
That is an interesting feature of both these hugely successful former world leaders. Their opponents often attacked them as being shallow media creations. My brief experience of them has shown me they are anything but that — they are both highly intelligent, hugely inquiring, very detail-oriented and astonishingly hard-working. Contrary to popular belief, you do not become a head of state just by looking like a movie star.
Throughout all of this Uma Thurman has been fantastic. Not only did she ask her agent to reach out to Stevie Wonder and persuade him to play at the dinner, but she also donated one of the evening’s top auction lots. One lucky child will now have a speaking role in her new film, Eloise in Paris. This was not easy to arrange. The lot raised £450,000 in the auction — I was so happy for her and she was truly moved.
This year our dinner was not just important for Ark and the children we aim to help but also London’s financial community. People have taken severe knocks in the past year. Redundancies are rising, credit is tough, inflation is back in our vital goods and most of our backers are hedge-fund managers who have been struggling like everyone to keep their heads up in the current financial turmoil. In times like these it is so easy to lie low. But London is the financial centre of the world and everyone is looking at us to see how we behave when the going gets tough. Well, we’ve shown them that we can get together, have a great time and raise more than £25 million for children who would not otherwise get the same breaks in life as we did. We should be proud.
Most of all we’ve shown people that the hedge-fund industry is a force for good in the world. In the past, my industry has been accused of everything from greed to carelessness to downright dishonesty. Now I feel a very different picture is emerging of us: working for others.