Newsmaker: A break from the past - Astrid Honeyman CEO, Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund

John Plummer

Leading the trust that concentrates on marginalised people and causes.

The last person to hold Astrid Honeyman's job was vilified on the front page of The Sunday Times for "betraying" Princes William and Harry.

But if she's worried about the pressure of being chief executive of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, she won't admit it. "I'm a forward-looking person and that aspect of the job isn't a concern," she says.

The scorn directed at her predecessor, Andrew Purkis, illustrated the acutely sensitive position the charity holds as the living memorial to Diana.

Set up in double quick time after the Princess's death in 1997, the fund has distributed grants worth £60m to humanitarian causes worldwide. Another £28m will be handed out before it closes, perhaps in as little as five years time.

Despite its good work, however, the charity has been scarred badly by its bitter legal battle with Franklin Mint, a US firm that sells Diana memorabilia. In 2003, the fund froze grants to more than 100 charities because of the threat of huge legal costs.

Hostilities ended late last year and in spring 2005 Purkis announced he was leaving. Honeyman says "a line has been drawn in the sand", and won't talk about it further. "It's easy to sit here with hindsight, but I'm not here to comment on decisions that were made before I joined," she says.

Honeyman is most certainly a break from the past. She has no prior connection with the fund, never met Diana and, at 36, is younger than the Princess was when she died. She is a doctor in social anthropology and enjoys contemporary dance, having written a thesis on aboriginal dance.

Her background in grant-making trusts and experience of working with HIV sufferers in Africa helped her land the fund's top job last month.

Her first task has been to launch a consultation with the voluntary sector on the future of the fund. Organisations have until the end of January to tell her how and where her charity should spend its money in its final years.

"I like the fact that we have a five-year timeframe because it focuses the mind," she says. "We don't have time to do this wrong."

The fund will not necessarily stick strictly to Diana causes, such as landmines. Instead, it will support bodies that help people on the margins of society. "We're working in her spirit," says Honeyman. "No one could know what causes Diana would have taken up today. It's the spirit we take forward, rather than an intention to fund only those causes of which she was patron."

Honeyman cites people trafficking and conflict diamonds as issues that might be considered suitable for awards. "The question is whether there is an opportunity to make a real difference," she says, adding that the fund will lean slightly towards international causes to redress a perceived imbalance in favour of UK causes.

As part of the consultation, she was yesterday due to meet members of chief executives body Acevo. "It has a knowledge of the sector that we'd like to hear," she says. When the listening ends, the fund will publish a paper in March outlining its plans.

Purkis was the fund's first chief executive - Honeyman hopes to be the last. "I'm certainly planning on staying here," she says. Sitting in her magnificent office in London's County Hall, overlooking the Thames and the Houses of Parliament, it's tempting to think she has one of the best jobs in the sector.

But the portrait of Diana hanging on her wall is a reminder of the responsibility and danger that comes with being chief custodian of the millions of pounds that poured in from sales of Elton John's single, Candle in the Wind.

"I feel a huge sense of responsibility," says Honeyman. "Not just to the public, but to the sector as well."

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