Interview: Astrid Bonfield

The chief executive of the Diana fund talks to Annette Rawstrone about her move to the new Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust and how both charities are more about social justice than the connection to royalty

Astrid Bonfield
Astrid Bonfield

Astrid Bonfield laughs at the suggestion that she's becoming a specialist in royal charities as she moves from leading the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund to become chief executive of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. In fact, she seems keen to play down the royal link.

"Neither of them are technically royal charities, but foundations - and that is my background," she says. "I started off running a local NGO in Zimbabwe and have spent five years working in squatter camps, so I have always engaged in international development - through the Bernard van Leer Foundation and then the Aga Khan Foundation.

"It is all about opportunities, having the right background and my international and UK experience. I was just very fortunate to be given these opportunities."

Does a royal name bring a particular set of pressures? If there are pressures, she says, they come from the responsibility to maximise charity donations.

"If anything keeps you awake at night, it should be that - are the programmes working? Are we really making change and are we making people's lives better? That's definitely what drives me."

Spend-out foundations

Both charities are spend-out foundations: the Diana fund is closing at the end of the year and the jubilee trust was set up by the Commonwealth heads of government in November 2011 with a five-year lifespan.

"It's a great privilege to have this one chance because you really do focus on outcome," she says. "It can be an interesting question to ask yourself: 'Would we do anything different if we were spending it all now?' Just asking that can really help you focus on what the best strategies are for you to gain those iconic outcomes.

"That's what we're all in this business to do - to achieve social justice and to change the way the world works; to end disadvantage. So that question gives it a sharp focus."

Bonfield finds the spend-out approach exciting and is proud of what the fund has achieved, including its work towards ending the detention of children in UK immigration centres and ensuring that palliative care is integrated into the treatment of people with life-limiting illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa.

Career highlights

"But I think the highlight of my life has to be the international treaty to end the use and stockpiling of cluster munitions," she says. "It was absolutely extraordinary to be a part of that process.

"Eighty countries across the world came together to work with state parties who stepped outside conventional processes and worked together for 18 months to achieve an international ban. Victims of cluster munitions took a central part in the campaign, and that was fantastic."

The jubilee trust, established to celebrate the Queen's 60-year contribution to the Commonwealth, is fundraising during her jubilee year and grant-making will start in 2013.

The charity, Bonfield says, operates on behalf of the Queen rather than as her personal charity, although her principal private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, is on the board of trustees. Sir John Major is chairman and there is an advisory group drawn from the Commonwealth.

"Commonwealth governments are giving money to the trust because it was their initiative," says Bonfield. "The Queen has said she doesn't want any gifts, but if anyone wishes to give something they should give it to the trust so it can be used in charitable work. The British government has already pledged up to £50m."

Working partnerships

The trust will not solicit bids for projects or implement programmes itself. Instead, it will work with selected partner charities and organisations across the Commonwealth on projects focusing on six programme themes, one for each decade of the Queen's reign: urban food, disability to capability, 'young diamonds', care with dignity, exceptional leaders, and heritage and culture.

Asked what she's learned from her seven years at the fund, Bonfield talks about legacy.

"We've been obsessed by it, thinking all the time 'Is this sustainable? Will it bring sustainable change? What will it leave behind? What will it look like 10 years after you close?'

"So that's going to be the main thing that I'll take to the new charity - that we know what success is going to look like, how we measure that and what we will leave behind."

And in five years' time will there be another crown linked to her next job?

"Who knows?" she responds, "It's just a matter of luck."


2012: Chief executive, the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust

2005: Chief executive, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund

2004: Director of policy, Aga Khan Foundation (UK)

2001: Programme development specialist, Bernard van Leer Foundation, Netherlands.

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