Analysis: Memorial charities

Amy Winehouse's father Mitch is one of many bereaved people who have started a new foundation, despite Charity Commission advice to consider joining forces with an existing one

Mitch Winehouse
Mitch Winehouse

When Mitch Winehouse heard about the death of his daughter Amy, the Grammy-award winning singer, his first impulse was to create a foundation in her memory. The 27-year-old was found dead from alcohol poisoning in her Camden home after a night of excessive drinking in July last year.

"That was my immediate thought: a foundation for children and music," says Winehouse, a former London cab driver who gave up his job to look after Amy during her much-publicised battle with drug and alcohol addiction. "It was not even 'my god, my daughter's dead'. That came afterwards."

Amy Winehouse The Amy Winehouse Foundation, funded mostly by the proceeds from Winehouse's book about his daughter and sales of an album released after her death, has been running for more than a year and is aiming to give £500,000 by the end of 2012 to charities that work with children and young people. It has about £1m in the bank, he says.

The foundation is one of the latest, most high-profile examples of a charity established in memory of someone who has died in tragic circumstances. Another is Help Harry Help Others, set up to continue the fundraising efforts of 11-year-old Harry Moseley, who died from an inoperable tumour last October.

Did Winehouse consider, as the Charity Commission recommends, putting the funds into an existing charity with a similar purpose? He is quick to dismiss the idea and says the foundation "saved his life".

"It was like she was telling me what to do," he says. "In a lot of what we are doing, I feel I'm being guided by Amy. Fifteen months after her passing, she is having an enormous, positive impact on young people - and that makes me feel good."

Two other memorial charity founders who suffered the loss of loved ones have also told Third Sector that they were not tempted to join forces with an existing charity - and that setting up their own charity has given them something positive to focus on.

The advice from the Charity Commission about setting up a charity in someone's memory is on its website. It asks people to think about creating a separate, named fund within an existing charity. "Instead of setting up a new charity, consider offering your services to, or merging or working collaboratively with, an existing charity," it says.

One of the most common reasons people call the commission or visit its website is to find out how to set up a charity, a spokeswoman says; they are directed to the web advice about considering other options first. "It is important for people to realise what they are letting themselves in for when they set up a charity," she says. "The responsibility, what we expect of them - we need to make sure people are thinking these things through."

However, those determined to set up memorial charities might never hear or see the advice, unless they actively search it out. If someone first puts in an application containing all the necessary information, the spokeswoman says, the commission is required to register the charity.

Chris Bingley founded the Joanne (Joe) Bingley Memorial Foundation with £10,000 of his own money in 2010, when he was coping with the loss of his wife and being a single father. It gained charitable status in April 2011, a year after his wife committed suicide because of severe postnatal depression shortly after the birth of their daughter.

"It meant that, one year on, there was something positive," he says. "I want to stop what happened to my wife happening to other people, and I want to protect my daughter in the future." Bingley was not offered any advice by the Charity Commission, but he says: "It's not its role to give advice, in a way."

Also in 2010, John Norgrove and his wife, Lorna, set up the Linda Norgrove Foundation in memory of their daughter, a Scottish aid worker who was kidnapped in Afghanistan and killed during a failed rescue attempt. The foundation funds projects that support women in Afghanistan.

Norgrove says he and his wife, who live on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, are "independent minded" and wanted to find their own way rather than donate to an existing charity. He says the foundation has given the couple something to keep them busy and in a positive frame of mind.

"But it has also meant that we've been constantly reminded of Linda's death," he says. "There is no way we regret it, but it is - like everything - not entirely good or bad."

The publicity about their daughter's death generated a lot of support for the charity, which had funds of £336,563 at the end of July. "It starts you off on an artificial footing," says Norgrove.

"But there comes a time when you have to move on and get funding on the basis of what the charity does with the money and whether people can empathise with it."

He is measured about the charity's future, saying: "I bet there is not a charity out there that is not worried about long-term funding. Whether or not we carry on will be a measure of our success."

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