What I learned… helping to launch a charity in a week, with Caroline Ayling of JAA

By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

John Ayling & Associates

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Charity Fundraising article

April 7, 2022 | 6 min read

Our CVs showcase our careers, but often miss out the most important factors in shaping them. Caroline Ayling is marketing director at John Ayling & Associates (JAA) – but just as significant as her career is her role in the creation of charity Duchenne UK, which she helped her cousin to launch off the back of £2,000 and a week off work.

Hi, Caroline. What do you do at JAA, and how did you get there?

I head up agency marketing here. I oversee and curate content. I nurture relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs). I supply content to partners such as The Drum Network. As a working mum I’m passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, and particularly gender in the workplace and supporting female talent and leaders in the industry.

I started out in sports marketing, specifically sponsorship activation. I spent my formative years working on incredible brands such as Guinness, British Airways, BMW and Aviva. I had an amazing time traveling the world being behind the scenes of global sporting events.

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I went on to become a rugby agent and managing director of a luxury sporting holiday and events company. After that I turned freelance while starting my family. I had the pleasure of working in-house at companies such as Diageo and Accenture and on projects including the Cricket World Cup.

And somewhere in there, you helped create a charity off the side of your desk?

This pitted history of my career misses out on a key moment in my personal life when in 2011 my cousin’s son was diagnosed with a devastating muscle-wasting disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Emily was a successful journalist and news producer, but on that day her world came tumbling down. The diagnosis was grim – there was no hope given by the medical professionals, there was no cure and treatments were limited. After the initial shock, Emily and her husband decided to launch a charity to fund vital research into the disease: Duchenne UK.

Emily knew nothing about starting a charity and I knew nothing about fundraising, but we had determination, grit and a target: to raise £1m a year for the next 10 years to find treatments and a cure.

It was 2011 and I was seriously considering a move from sports marketing – where I was spending a lot of time on beer, betting and financial services brands – to charity. While I was reveling in working on the London 2012 Olympics, I needed to give something back.

What made you realize that you could do it?

I realized that I had a valuable skill set. I was organized and structured, and a mountainous feat of raising a million pounds a year didn’t seem too difficult to overcome.

Luckily, my employer Engine ran an incredible program that provided two weeks of paid leave and a budget of up to £2,000 to follow a passion or dream. I asked if I could have a meeting room for a week to map out how we were going to launch a charity to help save my cousin’s son.

I got the week off (and the meeting room), so Emily and I started to plan out how we were going raise £1m in year one (£84,000 a month or £2,750 a day). We met with some incredibly generous people including my boss and colleagues.

We also planned a big cycling event, the brainchild of Emily’s former colleague Krishnan Guru-Murthy, which has grown into the charity’s lead fundraising event: The Duchenne Dash.

10 years on, Duchenne UK is the leading Duchenne muscular dystrophy charity in the UK and has raised over £10m to help fund research into treatments and a cure for DMD, and provide hundreds of families with support that wasn’t there when their children were diagnosed.

Sounds like a steep learning curve – what was the trickiest part?

I’d never done anything like this before. I had no idea how we were going to raise the funds we needed, but I knew we had to break it down, explore all avenues and use our networks.

We started by looking at all the ways you can fundraise: events, grants, partnerships. We explored channels – building a website, creating a comms plan, building a social media profile. It was an intense week but it focused our minds.

We started out with a launch fundraiser. Another cousin was a chef so he covered catering; my friends became serving staff (I think we had a KMPG partner running the bar and a creative agency business director clearing plates). Clients took tables and provided auction prizes; a fashion photographer friend provided incredible images of the event.

A pretty impressive turnout from the community!

I learned the power our industry community has to deliver positive actions for people it cares about. I will forever be grateful to Engine and my team for supporting me.

Never underestimate the power of your network (but remember if you are asking now, be prepared to give back when the tables are turned).

How has all of that impacted you, personally?

It showed me that no mountain is too high.

I also re-evaluated my own personal goals. I realized my skillset, network and capabilities were better deployed as a trustee rather than charity employee. Plus, I love this industry too much. The pandemic did mean I had to redeploy my marketing background from sport to agency, but it’s another new challenge that I am relishing.

Would you recommend a charity side-hustle to your colleagues?

I would certainly recommend taking on a trusteeship of a charity that you are passionate about. Lots of charities are looking for marketing and communications professionals to join them. Our inherent understanding of digital platforms, the power of ambassadors, knowledge of running events and ability to communicate a cause and message is much needed.

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