CEO interview: Andy Preston on why business people are sleeping outside for charity

At a time when it’s easy to despair about greed and selfishness in society, it’s important to remember how ubiquitous the impulse to “give something back” is in the UK. Most of us donate, volunteer, or support national or international causes. Many Charity Times readers could be earning more money if they worked for another kind of organisation, and some people are fortunate enough to be able to give back on a grander scale.

After making a lot of money working in the financial sector, Andy Preston became one of the latter, returning to the part of the country where he grew up, around Middlesbrough and North Yorkshire, to help create three new charities to serve communities across the region.
Born in 1966, Preston grew up in Middlesbrough, an industrial city that experienced a gradual decline during his childhood. Although he says his family was not particularly poor, a lack of money was a constant theme.

“I was always aware that money seemed to be quite tight, so I always wanted to have it,” he says. But although he had entrepreneurial instincts as a child, earning money from paper rounds and odd jobs, it took him a long time to become wealthy. Having left school with a single O-Level and unable to find work, he eventually retook some exams, then joined the RAF, a positive experience – “I met some great people and I matured a little bit” – which gave him the confidence to enter higher education, leaving the air force to study English and Philosophy at Edinburgh University.

Early signs of leadership

After graduation in 1992, he landed a graduate traineeship at a bank in the City of London. “I absolutely loved it,” he says. “It was exciting, it felt like I was prospering and I had responsibility, which I had always craved.”

Quickly identified as a rising star, Preston became a successful trader of financial instruments including bonds and equity derivatives. He was then given the task of building an international hedge fund business for the bank and proved to be very successful at this too, eventually turning $50 million (£38m) of seed capital into $5.5 billion (£4bn).

But during this period he also began a slow transition towards working in the charity sector. He met the financier Arpad Busson, co-founder of the international children’s charity Ark, which raised much of its money through a ‘patron’ model, asking wealthy individuals to commit to giving a certain amount each year. Preston was struck by the speed with which this philanthropy-based approach to fundraising could deliver substantial amounts of money to a charity.

His interest in and support for Ark led him to another organisation dedicated to helping young people, Fairbridge, for which he campaigned energetically until it merged with the Prince’s Trust – “a great charity” that already had lots of wealthy supporters in 2011.

By now, he had returned to the Teeside region with his wife and young family. Having left the financial sector in 2008, he was now thinking about creating a charity that would encourage wealthy individuals and organisations in the region to support good causes there. In 2010, he and another successful business leader, Tanya Garland, launched the Middlesbrough and Teeside Philanthropic Foundation.

Using a patron-based model and other fundraising methods, the Foundation has raised £3 million in eight years to support a range of projects and organisations in the Teeside region. Recent beneficiaries have included Kirkleatham Hall School, near Redcar, a school for students with conditions including autism, Downs Syndrome and various learning difficulties; a youth club project in an isolated village, Moorsholm; and a project run by Fairbridge and the Prince’s Trust that supports vulnerable young people in the region. Supported by an energetic trustee board, the Foundation’s work is done by “two and a half” employees who engage with patrons, work on fundraising events and monitor its social impact.

Introducing CEO Sleepouts

Meanwhile, in 2013 Preston asked local business leaders to support another fundraising event. “CEO Sleepouts” were devised in Australia in 2006, by businessman Bernie Fehon. Preston liked the idea and contacted Fehon to ask if he could use the name for something similar in the UK.

It’s a simple concept: successful business people sleep outside in a sleeping bag for a night in aid of homelessness and poverty charities. The first CEO Sleepout in the UK was organised by the Foundation and held at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough in 2013, where 30 attendees raised £30,000. A second a few months later, at St James’s Park in Newcastle, raised £45,000.

The success of these events encouraged Preston to create a new charity to run more. More than 1,900 CEOs have now taken part in the sleepouts and the organisation has raised £1.95 million. By late July, 2018 had seen CEO Sleepout events at Newcastle, Portsmouth, York, Worcester and Durham; with further sleepouts planned in Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester, Darlington, London, Middlesbrough/Stockton, Hull and Alnwick. The sleepouts will probably raise about £1 million this year. Previously run by Preston in his spare time, the charity now has one full-time employee.

The Fork in the Road

The charity spun out of the Foundation has itself created a social enterprise: the Fork in the Road, launched in 2017, which runs a restaurant and an alcohol-free bar from previously derelict premises in central Middlesbrough. Many of its staff have been trained through a programme for ex-offenders, recovering addicts and the longterm unemployed. It is supported by a partnership between CEO Sleepout and Public Health England.

The Foundation, CEO Sleepout and the Fork in the Road have all also been praised for their use of digital technology; and Preston delivered a presentation on ‘How to run an effective social fundraising campaign with no budget’ at the Institute of Fundraising’s 2018 Convention.

He believes success in this area is down to discipline, attention to detail and a willingness to engage directly with supporters. “We can thank them and we can laugh with them, in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” he says. “Don’t expect to just go on Twitter and get lots of money – but if you are constantly engaging you will find that good things happen.”

Today, reflecting on the work these organisations are doing, Preston says he is pleased and proud that they have been able to help people and to build strong links between businesses and grassroots community organisations. He is also quick to point to the contributions made by trustees and supporters. But he is also looking for the next challenge: “I love opportunities – to do some good, make some money or to have some fun.”

In 2013 he got involved with regional politics, as a high-profile campaigner in a referendum on whether or not to keep Middlesbrough’s elected mayor. The city’s Labour-led council wanted to abolish the post, but Preston, although a Labour supporter, felt this would give them too much power. His side won the referendum, during which he had pledged to stand for mayor if the role was retained: “Whether that helped or not, I don’t know,” he says. He was narrowly defeated by the Labour candidate in the subsequent election and says he has no further political ambitions at present, having left the Labour Party some years before 2013, because party politics was “dull and full of careerists”.

Instead, his primary focus now is to encourage more businesses and wealthy individuals to do more for charities; and to help charities tap into this potential source of funds.

“I know there are lots of companies out there that could be persuaded to give more, but never get asked,” he says. “I am confident that every company is willing to give a portion of their profits to good causes. It can help them build relationships with the community and attract new staff. I’m on a mission to get that message to business.”

He believes that individuals who have been successful in business could and should make a significant contribution to the voluntary sector. “I don’t think paying your taxes means you’ve done enough,” he says. “I know people who, if they were to write a £5 million cheque, would feel fantastic, and they wouldn’t miss it – and it would do a lot of good.”

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