Wishful thinking at Charity of the Year

    Make-A-Wish is the Thames Valley Business Magazine Awards 2018 Charity of Year. Jason Suckley, CEO of the Reading-based charity, tells Tim Wickham how the national brand has a strong and growing local presence.

    “We’re not here just to grant wishes, but to change as many lives as possible by as much as possible,” says Jason Suckley, CEO at Make-A-Wish, who is keen to work with even more corporate partners, supporters and volunteers across the Thames Valley. “We want to expand our role in the Reading community.”

    The global charity began in the US in 1980 and today operates in 50 countries. Make-A-Wish UK was started in Camberley in 1986 and is an affiliate of Make-A-Wish International. In 2018, Make-A-Wish UK moved to a new ‘hub’ in Reading’s Thames Tower. From here, a team of 75 full-time employees supports a national network of around 300 volunteers.

    Accountants James Cowper Kreston sponsored the award category. “Charites more than ever have to adapt. This year, Make-A-Wish best demonstrated a clear strategy and through technology, training, structure and governance will bring a transformation change to the organisation to further increase and expand services to its beneficiaries. We were delighted to announce them as our winners this year,” said Mike Farwell, head of charities at James Cowper Kreston.

    Local support

    Moving to the larger office in Reading opens up opportunities for greater local community involvement, including hosting wishes there. Reading-born comedian and kids TV entertainer Justin Fletcher, aka Mr Tumble, is a keen Make-A-Wish supporter. When a call goes out for DIY SOS-style support plenty of local businesses are always keen to help, notes Suckley.

    The charity’s ethos is that every child aged three to 17 with a critical illness who is eligible can be granted their ‘One True Wish’. Suckley estimates that 1,100 wishes will be completed in 2018. He’s confident Make-A-Wish will eventually fulfil its own wish of reaching all the estimated 5,000 children each year who are eligible for a wish.

    Around half the wishes it grants involve travel and both Thomas Cook and Disneyland are important charity partners. A wish is a very personal thing. It can be as simple as being a lift operator, a princess for the day, or having a temporary football pitch in your back garden. “Anything’s possible,” said Suckley. “It’s not for us to say something can’t be done.”


    Raising awareness

    Make-A-Wish is gaining public recognition. It was the chosen charity for BBC’s Strictly Coming Dancing 2018 Christmas Special, when around 20 children enjoyed a party with the stars. And for the third year running, Make-A-Wish was the beneficiary charity of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.

    A steady rise up the annual Charity Brand Index confirms the increase in public support. “We’re currently 24th as well as being the fourth most trusted charity brand according to the Index. For a relatively small charity with annual turnover of £9-10 million this is very significant,” said Suckley.

    Make-A-Wish is introducing new technology to link its hub more closely with its volunteer network. “This frees us from administration work to concentrate on the quality of experiences children receive,” said Suckley. “But we are being careful not to fall into the trap of thinking we are a business – we’re a charity that exercises business principles.”

    Wishes work wonders

    Suckley says anecdotal information from pediatricians indicates that children often face difficult treatment regimes better if they have a wish to look forward to. Make-A-Wish is now compiling evidence to back this up through research commissioned from Aston University that is due to be published in 2019.

    “The research will provide quantitative and qualitative data on the emotional wellbeing of children and their families in a measurement framework recognised by the medical profession. So people will be able to see the positive effect wish granting can have,” said Suckley.


    Tadley lad cleared for take off

    Make-A-Wish worked with easyJet to grant an amazing wish for Jacob, who lives in Tadley, near Reading, and has been fighting acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

    In August 2018, Jacob and his family visited easyJet’s training facility at Gatwick Airport. One of easyJet’s pilots showed Jacob how to fly an aircraft in one of its simulators. EasyJet even sent Jacob and his younger sister, Zoe, mini pilot and crew outfits beforehand, so that they could feel part of the team on the wish. In October 2018, to complete Jacob’s aircraft experience the family flew to Germany for a VIP tour of the Airbus factory.