The chief executive of the National Gardens Scheme says opening gardens for charity is a community activity that fits the big society agenda
As a teenager, he would cycle down village lanes in Kent with a yellow sign under his arm, looking for the prime spot for it to attract visitors to the 15-acre garden at his family's country estate, Goodnestone Park.
Fast-forward 40 years, and George Plumptre, as the new chief executive of the National Gardens Scheme, is responsible for thousands of yellow signs that will be dotted across the country this year advertising the gardens that open for the charity.
His green-fingered credentials are clear: he is a former gardening correspondent of The Times, the author of 10 books on gardens and the founder of an internet company that is now the UK's largest online-only garden specialist. But Plumptre is keen to raise the charity's profile outside the gardening sector and trumpet its model as one from which other good causes can learn.
Founded in 1927 by Elsie Wragg to raise money for what is now the Queen's Nursing Institute, the NGS promotes interesting gardens to the public. It is both a fundraising and grant-making organisation, so most of the money collected at garden gates is passed on to nursing, caring and gardening charities. Its eight major beneficiaries include Macmillan Cancer Support, Help the Hospices and the National Trust.
"I suspect there's a growing number of people who find it attractive that a visit by them, their children and their friends to a garden for a nice afternoon out is going to have a trickle-down effect to Macmillan Cancer Support nine months later," says Plumptre, after showing off the garden at Eccleston Square, which opens for the NGS, near his home in London's Pimlico.
"For a lot of our visitors that's a very pleasing equation to be part of. If we can strike that chord with people, I think it's a model for other charities: to find something where you can involve people locally in a community activity."
Of course, this model of community engagement for a good cause also strikes a chord with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his big society agenda. Most visitors to NGS gardens come from within 50 miles. The charity, which has its headquarters at the National Trust property of Hatchlands Park in Surrey, has in recent years witnessed particular growth in the number of gardens that open in groups, such as those attached to properties on the same street.
Like any local activity, Plumptre argues, a garden opening builds community spirit. "I think it's a very good example of the way a community activity can bring together people who don't otherwise know each other," he adds. "It's a great ice-breaker and there's a community cause - I think that's a lot of what they are talking about with the big society."
Plumptre puts part of the NGS's success down to its low entry cost. Most gardens charge between £3 and £5 for adults, and children are often let in at no charge. He adds that open gardens have been popular with the public for many years and therefore suggests the NGS model is "pretty recession-proof".
In 2010, the NGS attracted between 600,000 and 700,000 visits to its gardens and raised nearly £3.3m, with nearly £2.9m of that donated to beneficiaries. Since its foundation, the organisation has distributed more than £35m to good causes. At the moment, 84 per cent of funds raised go to the charity's beneficiaries, but Plumptre wants to increase that figure by fundraising from other sources, such as the charity's core sponsor, the City firm Rensburg Sheppards. "My hope is that 100 per cent will one day go to the beneficiaries and we will fund our charity operations through our other sources of income," he says. "It's a goal; it's certainly do-able."
Rensburg Sheppards currently sponsors the NGS website and half the cost of printing 45,000 copies of The Yellow Book, the annual guide, officially launched last week, to the 3,700 gardens that open for the charity. Shortly before Plumptre's arrival, the charity recruited a member of staff to concentrate on the business development side of its marketing. He says it plans to reach his 100 per cent target gradually by forming more partnerships that could attract sponsorship.
Plumptre, who has previously worked for the auction houses Sotheby's and Bonhams, and is a trustee of the Godinton Charitable Trust, is clearly relishing his first job in a charity. His enthusiasm extends to the sector in general because, despite the backdrop of cuts, he is optimistic about its future. "I think people's willingness to engage in the charitable sector will continue to increase; it's finding ways for the public to engage," he says.
2010: Chief executive, National Gardens Scheme
2003: Director in charge of business development, Bonhams
1999: Founder, internet gardening business Greenfingers
1993: Gardening correspondent, The Times
1991: Consultant editor/director of businesss development, Sotheby's
1980: Journalist and author