Newsmaker: Triumph and disaster - Brendan Gormley Chief executive, Disasters Emergency Committee

Mathew Little

Success has included the difficult role of 'messenger of doom'.

By any standards, last year was a remarkable one for Brendan Gormley.

The Disasters Emergency Committee raised £500m in 2005 and attracted millions of new donors. So high has its star risen that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have dropped into its cramped offices in a nondescript London mews to pay their respects to this "five people and a dog" operation, as Gormley calls it.

But when he speaks of success, he puts notional inverted commas around the word, because when the DEC is in action it means there is misery somewhere in the world. Its three recent appeals - the tsunami, Niger and the Asian quake - were responses to catastrophes that have caused at least 300,000 deaths.

Gormley confesses that his role as a messenger of doom can get him down.

"On a bad day, the thing that gets to you is the remorselessness of the awfulness we alleviate," he says. "If my face pops up, I'm the ambulance-chaser with the begging bowl."

Gormley doesn't come across as a practised exploiter of emotions. Tweed-suited and patrician, there is nothing of the salesman about him. His first vocation was religious - as a young man in the late sixties he spent two years with a French order of monks in Ireland and the Alps before succumbing to the secular spirit of the age. "I was sent to Strasbourg to study philosophy," he recalls. "But that was when France was revolting in 1968 and I fell out with my elders and betters. There was a papal encyclical about contraception I disagreed with and I was rebelling against authority."

He joined Oxfam and satisfied a long-standing desire to go to Africa, eventually rising to become the charity's regional director for the continent.

In 2000, he moved to the comparative anonymity of the DEC, which for four years in the nineties did not run a single appeal.

Four appeals in 14 months have shattered that seclusion. Nowadays, when Gormley isn't raising cash, he is on speaking tours to explain how he does it. The DEC has come to the notice of virtually the entire English-speaking world over the past 12 months, he says.

Copycat versions of collaborative fundraising are planned for a dozen countries, including the US, Canada and Germany. If the DEC could be patented, Gormley would be sitting on a fortune.

Closer to home, other parts of the voluntary sector that have struggled in the wake of the DEC's monster appeals have cast some envious glances its way. Is the DEC's hegemony damaging the rest of the sector? Gormley pleads not guilty. "We've matched our donor list to see who is new to our member agencies and found that we're bringing in up to 80 per cent new donors, not known to the international sector - and, we think, many unknown to charitable giving.

"It is tough out there, but I think we're growing the cake. It's not the case that, if I get the bigger slice, someone else gets a smaller one."

Gormley is doubtless hoping that his begging bowl gathers dust over the next 12 months. 'Success' breeds its own dilemmas, and the DEC is about to launch a major internal debate. Originally just a fundraising mechanism, it is being nudged to enlarge its mission. Whether member agencies - there are 13, ranging from Oxfam to Islamic Relief and Help the Aged - use the DEC to negotiate with the Government, or permit it to address the politics of humanitarian relief as well as ask for cash, has yet to be decided.

"I think we are at a critical moment," says Gormley. "It's in periods of great growth that the seeds of major challenges are often sown. The danger is that we take on things that aren't natural to collectives, confuse our mandate and fall apart."

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