Nigel Squibb on how he became the English president of a Romanian NGO

Nigel Squibb was born and raised in the United Kingdom, made a specialty of technology and built a successful business over the last decade. However, he felt that such a blessing should echo back to the community and in due course, the cause found him ready. He is now the President of A New Life Foundation (O nouă viață), a charity that works in northern Romania to improve the lives of young adults who experienced the conditions in Romanian Orphanages under the Ceaușescu regime. It also runs the only specialist paediatric care unit for children with severe handicaps in the Suceava district.

How did you get in touch with this foundation? What was your job at that time?

Together with some colleagues, I had started a small IT company in the early 1990s, which, by the end of the decade, had grown into a group of companies employing over 200 people. We saw that there was an IT bubble at the time – the boom – so we decided that the time was right to not only for us to sell the group, but to secure our employees futures by making them part of a  much larger businesses. I’m pleased to say that it worked out well for both our staff as well as myself and my colleagues.

Having made some money, I always knew I wanted to give something back to the community, but I had no idea of what that might be, or where in the world I might end up. I also decided to spend some money on myself, so in early 2000 I went to buy a new RangeRover, a car I’d promised myself for years. The salesman was a pleasant young man, and we did the deal. A few days later, I was looking through the local newspaper in an idle moment, and saw to my surprise that the young salesman was collecting money to buy a LandRover 4×4 vehicle for an orphanage charity in Romania. I say to my surprise, because in my experience salesmen tend to think about their commission and bonuses before helping others.  So I gave him a call and said that maybe I could help him, which I ended up doing. It wasn’t long before the founder of the foundation, a wonderful woman called Monica McDaid, telephoned me and asked me if I wanted to do more. The rest is history – 17 years later, I’m still working with foundation, and I am more involved than ever.

What aspects did you find the most striking about the situation at Siret when you first arrived there?

I had seen television programs about the Romanian orphanages, but nothing prepared me for what I saw – and smelt – that day I first went to the Siret orphanage. I knew immediately that there was a job to do, and that I should be part of it. I don’t want to say much about the condition of the children and teenagers there, it has all been described before, but sufficient to say that it was worse than I could have ever imagined. The smell of the rooms will stay with me forever.

On the positive side, the foundation had already built some of its own care homes and had moved children into them. These places were still institutions, but instead of 20 children to a room, there were only 2, the staff were loving and caring – they were a world apart from the state institution.

We hear more and more nowadays about the Individual Social Responsibility and its great benefits. What determined you to put your skills into helping these young people?

It was clear to me that whilst I am not and never could be a carer for mentally and physically handicapped children and teenagers, (I take my hat off to our people who work tirelessly with our beneficiaries) I had a set of management skills which might possibly be of use, especially as the foundation was in a period of transition from working completely outside of the state system to our position today, where we work together with the state as partners to provide high standards of care.

Does your previous background help you now with your decisions concerning the foundation? How would you describe the road between the corporate and the NGO sector?

My background was actually as the technical manager of our group of companies, but a large part of the staff reported to myself, so I had developed some man management skills. I’ve always tried to be someone who recruits the best possible people, and then lets them get on with their work without interference: I see my role as enabling people to do their best. If this works, then the hardest part of the job is actually getting people to stop working and take some time off!  In a company, actually only a few people are really concerned with making money, most people work because, of course, they need the money to live, but after that, if they find the work interesting and rewarding, they will work hard towards a common goal. The NGO sector is the same, we all have a common goal – helping our particular beneficiaries – but beyond that, we need to make the organisation an interesting, rewarding, and fun – yes – fun place to work.

So, to answer the question, I see very little real difference between an NGO and a commercial company, at least the sort of high tech companies I have been involved with.

Gandhi once said that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others… What does charity mean to you? Should it be part of our daily concerns?

This may come as a surprise to many, but many entrepreneurs who “make it” become quite depressed when all their dreams come true. They have worked all hours (I worked 14 hours a day for more than ten years) and suddenly, they have nothing to do, nothing to live for. Working with the foundation certainly helped me.  The concept of charity is difficult though.  I’ve sat in many bars drinking with our volunteers in the evening discussing why they are working with us, and it seems we all started with a vague notion of “doing good”.   This soon turns into a recognition that there is a job to do, and we just get on with it.  This in turn provides a huge degree of satisfaction – not the satisfaction of “doing good”, but much more the satisfaction of doing a job that is necessary and useful.

Since we can’t all be volunteers, I firmly believe that charity – in the sense of giving to help people – should indeed be part of our daily life. 

In the end, what would be your advice for all the people out there looking for a cause to support and invest in?

Firstly, remember that small NGOs are generally more efficient than large ones.  Irrespective of how their accounts are presented, large NGOs will have larger management teams, and, like any large organization will spend large sums doing all the things that large businesses do, reports, meetings presentations, strategic planning etc.  In a small NGO, this tends to be done informally in a bar after work.

Choose your cause wisely – without mentioning names, there are charities in the UK that have so much money in the bank that they never need to fundraise again to keep up their current spending level. Yet they still fundraise.  Choose a cause that really needs help. Choose an organisation that fits with your own views – in my own case, it was important that the foundation is not affiliated to any form of religion. Our beneficiaries can be part of any church they like.

If you invest significant sums, it doesn’t give you the right to control the NGO – the people who were there before you came along were doing their best, so remember you are just there to help them do better.

Finally, work with them and have some fun. You won’t regret it. 

This year, on June 28, the foundation celebrates 20 years of welldoing, marked by a charitable concert of classical music, at Cercul Militar Național in Buharest. Details and tickets below: