Why I quit my dream job for a new life

Nicholas Young was a high-flying lawyer with the world at his feet, but it didn't quite float his boat. So he took a deep breath, and a 60% pay cut, and went to work for a charity.

Steven Russell

Nicholas Young was a high-flying lawyer with the world at his feet, but it didn't quite float his boat. So he took a deep breath, and a 60% pay cut, and went to work for a charity. Today, he's chief executive of the British Red Cross. He told Steven Russell about helping the vulnerable - and his life in Suffolk

IT'S early 2009 and the Middle East is again gripped by violence. Sir Nicholas Young travels a fair bit as head of the British Red Cross, but it's no holiday. Iraq, Uganda, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Syria, Darfur, India . . . they're all parts of the globe where many vulnerable people have needed help and in most cases still do. Gaza is on the same, tragic list. The saddest place he sees on this trip is Samouni Street - home to an extended family and now a pile of smashed concrete. Three small girls tell a heartrending story of terror and death: moved out of their houses by troops, their new shelter bombed, a brother run over by a tank, a mother decapitated and her daughter left sitting by the body . . .

“They had nothing,” he remembers. “But somehow they and the kind of extended family that supported them were able to maintain their dignity and were kind of getting on with life in a way that was wholly admirable. And you see that again and again.

“I saw that after the tsunami; I saw that in the hills of Kashmir after the huge earthquake there. You just see people picking themselves up and getting on with it. It's a privilege to be able to provide them with help and support. Time and again you just reflect that, actually, recovering from a disaster is something the individuals do themselves; we're there to provide a bit of help and support for a time - actually, recovery is a long-term business.”

Has Gaza provided the most heart-rending experience of his seven-plus years at the helm of the British Red Cross?

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“Gosh, I don't know. When you've sat in a wooden shack in a township in South Africa and talked to a man and woman who are dying from Aids, and where the granny - who is ancient - is going to be looking after the five little children who are going to lose their parents, that's pretty devastating . . .

“I find it very difficult to make comparisons. I remember in Indonesia, in Banda Ache, after the tsunami, going with a woman with a BBC film crew who wanted to film in a hamlet that had been destroyed. She was very brave. She'd lost her husband; she'd lost one of her children; she'd lost her house. But she was prepared to come back and talk about that.

“We spent most of the afternoon looking around and trying to find some sign of where she had lived. And there wasn't any. She couldn't work out where had hut had been, even. So that was terrible. And all the time her daughter was tugging on her sleeve and asking her something. I said to the interpreter 'What's the little girl saying?' and he said 'Well, she's asking her mother if this is where daddy is, and will we see daddy today?' God . . . you know . . . That was just awful.

“It reminds you that, yes, you can rebuild houses, you can give people livelihoods, you can give them money, supply them with medicines and cooking pots - you can do all sorts of superficial stuff - but, actually, you can't bring people back from the dead and you can't give a little girl back her father.

“So, was Gaza the worst? I don't know. They all seem the worst when you're there, Steve.”

It must be hard to buoy your own spirits - which you need to do in order to help those in distress.

“I am quite an emotional person and I do respond emotionally, but you train yourself to maintain a professional distance that enables you to make good decisions. Sometimes you are devastated by what you see, and what you see is absolutely awful, but so often what actually comes over to you is just the incredible resilient of the human spirit and the incredible bravery displayed by people who are up against it.”

Does he ever cry?

“Yes, you do - either then or afterwards. Actually, I feel that's an important part of my job: not crying, but bringing back to my colleagues here - the fundraisers, the communicators, the people who work on the IT systems - that sense of how I responded personally to what I saw.

“It's kind of an important motivator to them, to see what I see and to feel they're contributing to what we do, whether they're in the front line or working in the accounts department. They all have a part to play. Bringing back a sense of what it tastes like, what it smells like, what it feels like, is really important.”

Sometimes the emotions take a while to emerge.

Sir Nick remembers going to a Suffolk church on a lovely January Sunday following the tsunami at the end of 2004 and bursting into tears. “The contrast between this lovely parish church with all these delightful people and the sun streaming in through the stained-glass window . . . and there was I: there, yet knowing that in Banda Aceh people were still up to their necks in mud and disaster. They'd lost everything. Well, that was an extraordinarily strong feeling.”

When he's out on the front line, Nick - as most people call him - gets involved in British Red Cross projects, supports other Red Cross societies, and often meets government representatives.

In Gaza, provoked by difficulties getting aid through to help the suffering population, he wrote a paragraph of measured anger for his blog. “Until all the parties to the conflict and the world's leaders prioritise the basic needs and rights of these people over power and politics it is hard to see how their predicament will ever be less than shameful.”

Is he often riled like that?

“Yes, particularly in that situation. The Middle East has been such a hugely intractable problem and there are so many difficulties in the way of peace there, and have been for so many decades, but actually politicians are people and we look to them to recognise the needs and suffering of other people, and to put the power and politics to one side sometimes and make bigger steps towards peace.

“That takes vision and it takes courage and real determination. But it doesn't happen if there aren't people of goodwill on all sides, and it's the ordinary people who suffer - absolutely every time.

“There's wrong on all sides and there's right on all sides, and we've got to move forward, somehow; and it's up to politicians to make those moves.”

Nick has been chief executive of the British Red Cross since 2001, though he started working life as a lawyer. Brought up in south London, he read law in Birmingham and returned to the capital to take articles with Freshfields - one of the “magic circle” of leading London-based law firms. He specialised in takeovers and mergers, and commercial law generally, and was there four years.

Just after they got married, Nick and wife Helen decided to see something of the world before they settled down, and spent 10 months travelling.

Afterwards he opted not to return to the City but to move to East Anglia in 1979 - an area of the country they'd come to love. “My grandparents lived in East Anglia for a while and I got to know it a bit then; and we had spent some time up there with friends.”

Nick worked with Turner, Martin and Symes in Ipswich (a law firm that would later merge with Eversheds). Actually, that underplays it somewhat, for he was a partner with TM&S.

The couple put down roots, with their three boys born and raised in Ipswich and Nick at one stage running a youth group at St Mary-le-Tower Church. They lived in Fonnereau Road and then Corder Road. “It's a great town. I love the fact it's not snooty like some places.”

Then came a seismic change . . .

“After about six years I began to feel I wasn't meant just to be making big companies bigger,” he explains. “It's an important job, but it wasn't what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. As you can imagine, this is a big thing, Steve - a conversion on the road to Damascus or something. There I was with three kids under five, and a big mortgage and a very good job in a very good law firm, but I just felt it wasn't quite where I was meant to be.”

What he was drawn to was the voluntary sector. One of the charities he contacted to take soundings was The Sue Ryder Foundation, based near Sudbury.

“I phoned them up one day and said 'Could I come and talk to somebody about working in a charity' and was slightly startled to be put straight through to Lady Ryder. (He does a good impression of the late Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, wife of the decorated wartime pilot Leonard Cheshire.) 'Oh, you're a lawyer; you'd better come and see me. What are you doing tomorrow?'

“So quite literally, having made this slightly off-the-wall request just for information, I found myself the next afternoon sitting with Lady Ryder in her study in Cavendish. I was with her all afternoon, four or five hours, and became fascinated with her and her work. Even that afternoon I just had this feeling of being picked up and put down in the right place.”

Sacrificing a law partnership was a big decision, and Nick admits “I sort of fought against it for a few months.” But eventually he made the jump. “It meant a huge drop in salary - more or less a 60% drop in salary - but it was my wife, really [who convinced me].

“I'd been doing some voluntary work for the foundation by this point, giving Sue Ryder and her husband legal advice and helping with fundraising committees and things, and Helen said 'Look, you're really interested in this work; why don't you give it a go? You can always go back into the law if it doesn't work out.' So I did. I gave up my partnership and sold the house, and got rid of a big chunk of the mortgage, and set out working for Sue Ryder.” That was in 1985, when he was 33.

Nick earlier mentioned St Mary-le-Tower Church and talked of being picked up and put down in the right place. Is he religious and was it a God-inspired move?

Well, he was raised a Roman Catholic. “I certainly had a sense of vocation and a bit of a sense of destiny; that I was meant to be doing this; and whether that was the hand of God or sheer luck, Steve, I really don't know,” he laughs, “but it felt like the right thing to be doing.”

The job with the foundation (now Sue Ryder Care) took Nick around the country. Old buildings - often beautiful ones - were transformed into homes for people with conditions such as cancer, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, Huntington's and Parkinson's disease, stroke and dementia.

He recalls being at a property the foundation had acquired in Leicestershire. It was very much a hands-on charity, so everyone was mucking in, including the baroness. Nick was very aware that, in a short space of time, he'd gone from concentrating on legal details to changing light-bulbs and sweeping up. And he loved it.

“It really felt I was doing something important; I was making a difference in people's lives that I just hadn't felt I was doing as a lawyer,” he says.

After five happy years, Nick decided it was time to move on in 1990. Very much committed to the voluntary sector, he saw an advert for the job of director of UK operations at the British Red Cross. He became part of a new team developing an organisation that had “become a bit traditional; a bit old-fashioned, perhaps, and needed modernising”.

And then, another five years down the line, he became chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief, as it was then - a happy organisation full of jolly people, despite the nature of its work. “We had a new Labour Government relatively soon after I joined Macmillan and we were able to persuade them to adopt cancer as one of their main health priorities.”

Oh, and though he doesn't mention it himself during our chat, he was knighted in 2000 for services to cancer care.

Nick wasn't actively looking for a fresh challenge when the British Red Cross chief executive vacancy arose out of the blue. He was rung about the job and, in many ways, it was like going back home. By the middle of the summer he'll have been in the post eight years.

There's little pattern to the job, he says, with the emergency response nature of its work calling for the organisation to turn on a sixpence - and raise the money to fund relief operations.

The best thing is “the feeling that you are at the sharp end and making a difference in people's lives, often at the worst point in their lives”. That applies both to post-flooding work in Bangladesh, say, and caring for a spectator who has keeled over at a fete in Banbury.

“And everyone is passionate about what they do. Getting them to go home is the problem, not getting them to come in to work. Working in an environment where everybody shares your passion is very energising and exciting. Not everybody gets that in their work.”

What's the worst thing? “I suppose when you feel you haven't done enough: we haven't raised enough money; we haven't been quick enough in our response; there were people whose needs didn't get met for one reason or another. That can be very frustrating.”

Working in an earthquake zone is high-profile, of course, but there's much more to the British Red Cross that doesn't grab the headlines: projects like first-aid tuition, supporting people who have just come out of hospital and working with refugees and asylum seekers.

The latter, he admits, is not always seen as a popular cause. But it's firmly within the charity's remit and he defends it on humanitarian grounds.

“The Red Cross is an organisation that exists to meet the needs of vulnerable people, whoever they are and wherever they are, and clearly that includes refugees and asylum-seekers and vulnerable migrants here in the UK.

“So many people who come here have come from really terrible situations, where it was impossible for them to live their lives and bring up their families in the peace and security we know here. If they come here, whatever their legal position, they should, we believe, come knowing that their basic needs will be met.

“Legally, if they have to go home, then they have to go home. But I do believe that while they're here we shouldn't let them become even more vulnerable than they perhaps already were in their own country.”

His own home life is divided between a little flat in London and a cottage in coastal Suffolk that he visits about once a month, if he's lucky, because of all the travelling his job demands.

When he and Helen are here, they like to walk and catch up with friends. Nick is also a keen sailor, though the Suffolk-based 12ft dinghy he shares with a friend is up for sale because it doesn't get used enough.

A trip to Portman Road is fitted in when possible. “Wouldn't it be great to see Ipswich Town getting into the next division? They get so close,” he sighs.

The Youngs have three grown-up sons. “They all think I'm mad,” laughs their dad. “They think anybody who works in the voluntary sector is a nutcase, if they're anything like their father.” One son is in the building business, another in the financial industry, and the third is with a company that makes cochlea implants.

Nick has no regrets about taking that big leap in the mid-1980s.

“I've been incredibly happy, incredibly lucky in what I've done with the organisations I've worked for. I've been able to commit myself to it and get passionate about it in a way I simply couldn't have done as a lawyer. I just did not feel that passionate about the law.”

That said, the critical skill lawyers develop - identifying the key question or issue and then dealing with it �- has stood him in good stead since.

Nick's had a number of jobs that have lasted five or six years. Any signs of itchy feet?

No is the short answer. “I love this organisation, I love the work we do, I love the people who do it. I feel I'm making a difference here. I don't see another organisation or job where I'd prefer to work. Things happen and jobs can come along . . . but I'm not looking for it.”

By the way, I suppose his own first-aid skills are up to scratch?

“Oh yes! How embarrassing would it be if there I was giving a speech and something happened and I wasn't able to do anything!” They haven't yet had to be used in an emergency, luckily. “But you never know. If your colleagues at the East Anglian would like a first-aid course, I'd be very happy to arrange one for you.”

Cross section

The British Red Cross has:

3,000 staff

about 40,000 volunteers

an annual income/expenditure of about �247 million

It's a volunteer-led organisation that helps people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are

Its UK focus is on emergency response to calamities such as floods and fires; first aid training;

health and social care (helping people during illness or bereavement, say) and refugees and other vulnerable migrants

Abroad, it concentrates on emergency response, disaster preparedness, health and social care, and

international humanitarian law

In 2007, 137,920 people attended its first aid courses

Its volunteers were on duty at 10,420 public events, from music festivals to marathons

That year, more than 780 volunteers and staff were involved in the British Red Cross's biggest-ever peacetime operation, as flooding swept across many parts of the UK

In Pakistan, where half a million people were left homeless or displaced by flooding, the BRC's mass sanitation team helped fight disease

Cross check

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement started in 1863

It was inspired by Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, who had been shocked at the suffering of thousands of men, on both sides, left to die through lack of care after the Battle of Solferino in 1859

He proposed the creation of national relief societies, made up of volunteers and trained in peacetime to provide impartial help to relieve suffering in times of war

In 1870, after the outbreak of hostilities between France and Prussia, Colonel Loyd-Lindsay called for a national society to be started in Britain

The British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War was formed

In 1905 it became the British Red Cross