OPINION: Silent heroes in the good fight

Here's a crumb of history to edge you closer to victory at any future third sector quiz night. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), whose collective worth is once again proving invaluable following their recent televised southern Africa appeal, was the brainchild of Bill Astor. On 18 December 1963, drawing on his work with the British Refugee Council - of which he was also a founding spirit - Bill assembled representatives of the major overseas aid charities and persuaded them to pull together to answer global emergencies. So the DEC was born.

Humankind has good reason to be eternally grateful. Bill was one of an almost vanished breed of individuals who insisted that their financial and practical support for charities went unacknowledged - true charity some would say - and so he would have wanted anyway to remain in the background at the new DEC. But the founding meeting happened in the midst of the Profumo scandal, the sex and spying saga that gripped Britain in the early 60s. Bill was in disgrace because the shenanigans had taken place in a cottage on his Cliveden estate. And so his triumph with the DEC was barely acknowledged.

It is an unhappy memorial to a man who, by the time of his premature death in 1966, had left many more substantial monuments. We are, by and large, good in the charity world at celebrating our heroes - but never for very long. We suffer from chronic short memory syndrome. That may be entirely right given that the cause is always much bigger than any individual.

But, I couldn't help thinking as I watched the DEC appeal, how effortlessly our society overlooks any amount of good done by an individual to focus instead on one peccadillo - or in Bill's case one alleged peccadillo.

Surely, in a voluntary sector that prides itself on seeing beyond the crowd-pleasing headlines to the real issues, we might give society a lead in setting standards for what should really count towards the making or breaking of a reputation.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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