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My life in five start-ups benefiting charities

Sandwiches for Save the Whales

As a 14-year-old I got heavily into Save the Whales and decide to raise some money. I went to boarding school (I am very lucky to come from a privileged background) and decided to make sandwiches to sell to lots of hungry boarders. Each day I’d skip sports and walk to the village shop and make 3 or 4 loaves of sandwiches, and at weekends added packet cheesecake and flapjacks. I raised about £2000 overall for Save the Whales over the course of two years.

One of my innovative ideas was to let people have sandwiches on credit but at a mark-up - half a round was 10p with cash, and 15p on credit. At the end of each half term I would remind my debtors what they owed me and they would get the money out from the housemaster as ‘travel money’. It’s the closest I have come to being a loan shark. I also got the students to campaign on live animal transport, live animal experimentation alongside banning whaling.

Environment and development education

I did a first degree in Applied Zoology, and then a Masters in Development studies as I was keen to work out how conservation could work better with local communities (I’d worked on conservation projects in Newfoundland, Zambia, Nepal and Brazil) and do a PhD. I couldn’t get funding for the PhD but as I came out of a final tutorial for my Masters, I bumped into the local Oxfam campaigner who I knew.

With no PhD I was looking for something to do while my girlfriend (now wife) finished her vet training. and out of this chance meeting I started an environment and development education charity, for the Cambridge area called the Harambee Centre. I went into local secondary schools and talked about development issues, poverty and in primary schools got pupils to try carrying water on their heads and make peanut butter by hand. There was no pay, so in the evenings I worked as the in-store handyman at the local Texas Homecare (like Homebase or B&Q) DIY store. I am still awesome at assembling flat pack furniture and yes, I really was a Texas Tom. Towards the end of my time at the Harambee Centre, we secured the funding to employ somebody, and they started as I left to go to work at Oxfam.

Free research and reports about charities

Working at a direct marketing agency in the mid-90s I was struck how many charity clients wanted to track their awareness but all did it separately. What if charities collaborated? The idea of a syndicated tracking service was taken up by a think tank, and when I went freelance, I started running it for them. It soon became clear that their only interest in non-profit was in how much money I was or wasn’t making.

So I did a management buy-out in 2003/4 with a colleague and nfpSynergy was born. The syndicated tracking services expanded to include MPs and journalists, and the devolved nations. The side that I always liked the best were the free reports and research, we published on stuff to do with charities and non-profits: around 10 in a typical year and over 150 in total over the year. I sold the business to two fab colleagues in 2021.

Strengthening Charity Communications

While working at my first proper paid job at Oxfam, fundraising, I could never understand why fundraisers had the Institute of Fundraising, while charity communicators has nothing. This was reinforced when I went to work for RNID at Director of Communications. So I sat down in the mid-2000s with a group of Comms directors and asked them if they wanted their own body. The near universal view was yes – and out of that CharityComms was born. Ideas are always easier than implementation and getting the funds was hard. Being the owner of my own company proved a huge benefit: nfpSynergy paid for some CharityComms staff salaries and gave them free rent and a lot of soft support for over a decade. I stepped down as Chair in 2013, and CharityComms still flourishes today.

Hey Joe and not being Jimi Hendrix

When I sold nfpSynergy (now nfpResearch) I still wanted to research and write about charities. I needed a website and a good name for what I was doing. A lot of people, who are clearly Jimi Hendrix fans, email me with the greeting ‘Hey Joe’. I thought that would be a good name for a website. Sadly the ‘’ URL was over $50,000 a year, but ‘’ was about $8 a year. So the name was born. Working with a brilliant former colleague, Samiksha Rai, who is based in Nepal we publish a couple of blogs/research/reports a month. We currently have a series of blogs about how charities do strategy, and how charities use videos, with a range of other things in the pipeline. You can sign up to our newsletter and read the latest things we have published here.

You can email me on and follow me on twitter @saxtonjoe and on linkedin



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