Newsmaker: The royal appointment - Andrew Purkis, Chief executive, The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund

Dominic Wood

Andrew Purkis has spent a lot of time marching along the Cornwall coastline during his six years at the helm of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. "There's nothing like a good walk along the cliffs in Cornwall, watching the sea crash against the rocks," says Purkis. "I've done quite a lot of pounding across those Cornish cliffs, but I can honestly say that I never once thought of throwing myself off."

He could be forgiven if he had entertained such thoughts. Earlier this month, Purkis was facing the very real prospect that in just a few weeks he would have to preside over the fund's demise.

A Los Angeles judge was about to hear evidence for Franklin Mint's £13.5m countersuit of the fund for 'malicious prosecution', and a further £160m for loss of earnings. The Mint launched the litigation in 2002 after the fund had lost its 1998 bid to prevent the firm from making Princess Diana memorabilia.

Had the US company won the case and the fund been ordered to pay the claim, its £48m reserves would have been wiped out. But on 10 November, after six years and two lawsuits, sense finally prevailed with a settlement enabling the fund to award grants for the first time in 16 months.

Back in his spacious office overlooking Big Ben, Purkis's relief is palpable, but he says he can't quite believe the dispute has ended. "We're still trying to get used to the idea that the Franklin Mint case is over for ever. It's like going out into the Battle of Britain and finding there's no Luftwaffe."

Apart from his passion for rambling, his ordeal was made tolerable, he says, by a loving family and those parts of the voluntary sector devoted to the fund's favoured causes.

"There have been many touching moments to cherish in spite of all the difficulties," says Purkis, citing in particular his staff's shared belief in the fund's mission, and the constant support and kindness of other grant-giving trusts. Above all, he has been comforted by the "extraordinary generosity of most of our beneficiary organisations, despite what we had to do to them inadvertently".

The fund's enforced grants freeze on 11 July 2003 left 127 projects on a knife-edge. Clearly not short on war metaphors, Purkis describes their rescue by other grant makers as a "Dunkirk operation" and is grateful that every one of the projects was saved from collapse.

He believes that the rescue mission has left a legacy of increased collaboration among grant givers, some of which probably would not have helped the more marginalised causes in less desperate circumstances.

Purkis says the fund will now build strategic links with those "shotgun partners". At the heart of this plan is the hope that better collaboration with other permanent trusts will enable the Diana Fund's work to continue after its own life cycle comes to an end - probably within the next decade.

Another likely evolution of the fund after the Franklin Mint affair will be a more campaigning outlook. Its work with Landmine Action led warring parties involved in the Sudan conflict to meet at the fund's offices to discuss how humanitarian mine action involving local communities could take place across the line of conflict.

Purkis wants to see more of that: "We can now grow into our true role as a leading humanitarian organisation both here and abroad, without the distraction of the court case holding us back. You may find the balance of our activities changing over time." Purkis says that these roles would be reviewed, alongside its future grants themes, in a consultation with the charity sector next spring.

Meanwhile, he believes that some stories in the press have created a "strange optical illusion," that has left the public with an impression that the fund solely pays lawyers to fight in the courts: "Next year, there is a very good chance that the perception will be overtaken by the reality," he says.

The thorny issue of who is to blame for the original legal action against Franklin Mint is not a topic Purkis is particularly comfortable discussing.

He says he never felt culpable or considered stepping down because of it. He took office in June 1998, about a month after the case against Franklin Mint had been filed. He says it would have been "implausible" to stop it at that stage. None of the nine trustees who backed the move offered to quit as a result of it either. Purkis says the five trustees who have left the fund since did so for other reasons. He points to the statement about the "absence of malice" in the recent settlement, which says the trustees acted in "good faith, reliant on advice received by their former US attorneys".

Purkis adds: "It is a very unhealthy feature of our culture that we always try to find someone to blame when armed with lashings of hindsight. The trustees did what they believed they were obliged to do to fulfil their duties to the fund. They had a legal agreement with the Princess's estate obliging them to police intellectual property rights proactively."

But then he also says: "Clearly, any lawyer that advises a client to bring an action that goes wrong has got to feel a degree of responsibility."

Purkis has never spent longer than seven years in the same job, but he denies that the end of the court battle might signal the end of his era too: "It's only been a few days since this rather ghastly entanglement came to an end and I'm now focused on the resurgence of the fund."

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