Ian Govendir: Diana, the force for charitable good

The late Princess of Wales still inspires others to do charitable work, writes the charity chief who knew her

Ian Govinder
Ian Govinder

The images of, insights into and memories of Diana, Princess of Wales, remain as diverse and fraught as the day her life was tragically taken.

We’ve had glitz, glamour, global fascination and mass mourning.

We had the breakdown of her marriage, an array of supposed infidelities, murder conspiracies and the recent airing of the princess's "tell-all" private tapes.

I was lucky enough to know her, and my personal memory of Diana’s unfaltering love, kindness and compassion – and her wicked sense of humour - remain vivid and powerful 20 years after her death in that Paris underpass.

Diana had an aura that was difficult to characterise: once in the same room, you just knew you were in the presence of someone unique.

I could cite numerous cases of when I experienced this first hand, but as I reminisce my memories draw me back to a magnificent inaugural gala performance of La Bohème that I attended with the princess in 1996 at the Royal Albert Hall.

It was in the midst of her separation from Charles and she was clutching a programme with an advert on the back that said one word: "commitment". She turned to me and jokingly commented on what the media was going to say about this in the morning. In that moment, her openness, honesty – dare I say, vulnerability – and ability to make light of any situation once again shone through.

She offered warmth and compassion to everyone she came into contact with and, shortly after meeting her, you’d feel like you had known the princess all your life.

It really is no wonder she was loved and adored by all who met her, and by many who didn’t.

My own friendship with Diana blossomed after I was fortunate enough to work with her while I was head of individual giving at the the British Red Cross and latterly as chief executive of the British Lung Foundation.

She was a great supporter of both causes and, whenever I needed her, she was always there with a supporting hand – and that support guaranteed mass media attention. A true humanitarian icon, she was our secret weapon.

But on an even deeper personal level, I will be forever grateful to my friend for her efforts on dispelling the stigma surrounding HIV.

As someone who has lived with HIV for more than 30 years, this was a cause close to my heart, as well as to hers.

In the late 1980s, there was a widespread public misconception that the disease could be contracted through casual contact and Diana launched a tireless campaign, both publicly and privately, to help Aids patients.

Inspired by her selflessness and altruism – and after nearly dying from an Aids-defining illness myself in 1996 – I decided I wanted to start my own charity, Aids Orphan UK, to help the innocent victims of this dreadful disease.

Still terribly sick, I was in the process of writing a letter to Diana asking her to be patron when I got the news of her death. It came as a complete shock to me and took a very long time to process. The world lost an icon and I lost a dear friend.

In her memory, Aids Orphan UK now works across the world to support and provide for children and infants who have been affected by HIV/Aids. We enable access to life-saving treatment, education, medical support and counselling across the world.

I feel her loss to this day, but it is wonderful to watch Prince Harry carry on his mother’s legacy.

Diana supported many charities during her short life – Centrepoint, the National Aids Trust and the Leprosy Mission just to name a few – but her legacy goes far beyond this.

The princess spoke out on a large range of issues and used her high profile to raise awareness of and funds for charitable causes. She understood the power of her public role and used this to change attitudes on the issues of the day.

We might never be able to quantify how many millions of pounds were donated because of the spirit of giving that Diana inspired. And we’ll never know what the world would have been like if Diana had not been lost to us: how many more lives she would have changed for the better or what other great deeds she could have achieved.

But one thing I know for sure is that the princess inspired so many others, myself included, to invest more time and money into relieving the suffering of others.

She forced so many of us to question our prejudices and had a measurable impact on how the public viewed charities.

It is certainly easy to get caught up in the "celebrity" of Princess Diana, but she deserves to be remembered as one of the most powerful forces for good in the 20th century.

Her impact on the charitable sector continues to this day and so does her ability to lift the human spirit and inspire greater achievements by others.

And this, we must remind ourselves, should be the true legacy of her life that continues 20 years after her death.

Ian Govendir is chief executive of the Aids Orphan UK Trust

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