Obituary: Gill Astarita

With the death of Gill Astarita last Thursday, the voluntary sector has lost one of its most dynamic and inspirational fundraisers and leaders.

Gill Astarita
Gill Astarita

A true entrepreneur, Gill devoted her career to working in the voluntary sector, first as a fundraiser, then as a chief executive. Passionate and outspoken, Gill inspired loyalty, confidence and commitment from her colleagues and friends alike.

Born in Tottenham, north London, on 5 November 1958, she was the youngest by some years of four children. Her mother died when Gill was 14, her father when she was 21.

She failed her 11-plus, left school at 16 and, still in rebellious teenage mode, spent several years in a number of dead-end secretarial and marketing jobs. Her father's death came as a wake-up call and she gave up work to take A-levels at Loughton College. She was offered places at both the London School of Economics and City University - she attended each of these briefly, but found them too stuffy for her tastes. Three years at Middlesex Polytechnic netted her a first class honours degree in social sciences. As well as gaining her degree, she also met her husband Mark in her last year.

She knew she didn't want to spend her working life in the corporate sector ("why make fat cats fatter?" she asked) and managed to get a temporary post at Liberty (then the National Council for Civil Liberties). From there she went to War on Want, initially as temp, but eventually as campaigns assistant. She was a union shop steward and, always a great communicator, negotiated the best redundancy deal in the voluntary sector at the time.

Her first proper job as a fundraising manager was at Prisoners Abroad, working for Keith Best. The organisation lived a fairly hand-to-mouth existence, but Gill managed to obtain substantial foundation and trust grants to give it future stability.

From there she moved to Addaction, one of the UK's first drugs and alcohol charities, where she spent 18 months as part of a small team before going to the Pre-School Learning Alliance with a big team of fundraisers. She moved back to Addaction to see the charity through a period of huge growth and earned her reputation as an inspirational fundraiser and excellent political lobbyist. Six years later, she left the charity with a much more secure future.

As director of marketing and communications at Action for Blind People, Gill pioneered the use of face-to-face fundraising and direct marketing and saw the charity's income grow from £3m to £13m.

Many who worked with Gill at this time have themselves gone on to management roles within the voluntary sector, and tributes and good wishes sent to her before her death bear witness to the high esteem in which she was held. Colleagues talked of a passionate and inspirational leader who created an atmosphere of fun, hard work, creativity and achievement.

"I admire and aspire to your overwhelming sense of fun," said one ex-colleague, "your passion for making the world a better place and your belief in people."

Her last role, as chief executive of Volunteer Reading Help, was probably her most challenging - but to her mind, the most rewarding. "Being a chief exec has to be the best job and the worst job," she said recently. She relished the opportunity to be able to shape the organisation into a healthy state, but tore her hair out at some of the problems that came her way in a seemingly endless stream.

In the midst of this, she also found time to help set up the Fundraising Academy, gathering around her a team of successful fundraisers committed to teaching people who want to get into the sector. Their knowledge and experience help to make life easier for new fundraisers by teaching them how the sector works. She believed that a broad experience in fundraising was vital for future success further up the ladder. Gill was never keen on the current trend for fundraisers to specialise in one discipline, such as corporate, before they have grasped the basics of fundraising as a whole.

She was always glad that she had begun her career in a small charity, "doing a bit of everything", and gaining a breadth of knowledge that in her later career helped her understand the workings of the machine.

Work consumed her and took up a large percentage of her waking life, but she still found time for a busy social life, holidays in exotic places (one booked as another ended), her many friends, her house, garden, cats and, of course, her husband Mark.

Gill wanted to be remembered as an agent for change: changing people's lives for the better and changing organisations to make it happen. Never content with good or very good, she always pursued excellence with a passion. But she also wanted to be remembered as someone who didn't take everything too seriously, was a bit irreverent and had fun. "The sector's too po-faced," she said. "It takes itself too seriously and doesn't always help itself." Her lifelong wish, she said, was that charities be so successful they would do themselves out of a job - but she sometimes felt that they lost sight of their goals.

Well, Gill did help herself, and never lost sight of her goals. At the same time, she helped a great many other people and brought hope, confidence, inspiration and laughter to many lives.

"I love your style," said one admirer, "and the voluntary sector would be a better, more effective and more vivacious place with more Gill Astaritas."

Gill Astarita - born 5 November 1958; died 4 September 2008

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