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help at hand

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The Architects Benevolent Society could rarely be described as a dynamic organisation and in the past two years it has been facing financial ruin. For new business manager Norman Webster, this is a challenge to relish

The Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) is in danger of financial meltdown. While it insists on spending up to £1 million a year helping out members of the profession, it receives only £30,000 in donations. You don't have to be an accountant to see that the numbers simply do not stack up.

The man charged with turning this balance sheet around is the new business development manager, Norman Webster, a burly 45-year-old Zimbabwean with a history of charity work quite different to architectural fundraising.

Webster's brief - to boost contributions - is not something the ABS has ever really had to worry about. Until now, that is.With most of its capital locked up in the stock market, the society is being hit hard by the recent crash.

As share prices began to dive-bomb in the summer of last year, the charity's trustees realised they badly needed a new strategy. First and foremost they wanted someone to 'find out just how much money we can hope to get out of the profession'.

But they also wanted someone who could shake up both the ABS itself and the whole profession, improving the society's perception among architects as deserving of their hard-earned cash.

The situation is not lost on Webster, an honest, hard-working professional fundraiser with a frank turn of phrase.

'The ABS is close to crisis point, ' he says slowly, looking you in the eye, and it is immediately apparent that he never uses hyperbole.

'The situation is genuinely very tight at the moment, ' Webster adds knowingly. 'We were relying on the stock market for 90 per cent of our income until recently. But the signs are there that we can turn this round and I am excited about what we might achieve here.'

This enthusiasm may seem something of a surprise when Webster allows his exotic past to emerge. Brought up in Zimbabwe of English and Scottish ancestry, he went to a South African university in the mid-1980s where he met his wife, settled down and soon landed a decent job with a pharmaceutical company.

However, Webster was soon bored and decided to make a move into the charity sector because 'South Africa had been extremely good to me and it was time to give something back'.

There then followed a series of highly unusual posts, including running a Nelson Mandela-initiated company that provided 500,000 school lunches a day for some of South Africa's poorest children. The job that really stands out, though, was a post as the general manager of the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, a complex with three auditoriums that Webster believes 'was the biggest and best theatre centre in the southern hemisphere'.

But Webster's life in South Africa was brought crashing down by the rampant crime wave that swept through the country in the late 1990s.

'We decided enough was enough when our house in Johannesburg was burgled three times in the space of a week, ' he says sadly. So Webster packed up his home and family and debunked to Sussex to sort out the world of architecture.

And it seems hard to believe he will fail.

Alongside a pleasant but serious exterior is a steely character that one imagines does not take easily to being told no. 'I believe the signs are already there that we can get some cash out of the market, ' he stresses with confidence.

'In the time I've been here we have already gone a long way to sorting out the problems.We have developed a much better website, had a lot of meetings with organisations like the RIBA regions and the BIAT, and already increased the revenue a little.'

Although without a personal history in either Britain or architecture, Webster seems to be genuinely passionate about what he is doing. 'One in 20 of the UK's architects will turn to the ABS for help at sometime in their careers, ' he says with a relish born of knowing just how surprising the statistic is. 'The ABS helped out 322 people last year, of whom 72 were children and orphans.'

But Webster is keen for the society to be seen as more than simply an organisation that dishes out cash when an architect in need comes knocking on its door. He wants the profession to see it as a progressive charity.

Webster cites an example of a young architect disabled last year in a car accident.

Instead of simply writing out a cheque, the ABS researched the kind of computer he would need to return to practice, paid for it and installed it. 'That way, he is now set up for life and is not dependent on handouts, ' Webster says proudly.

And he is full of ideas for getting more money to pay for this kind of work, such as riverboat cruises, jazz evenings and even a charity reception in the Lord Chancellor's residence. 'I believe we can increase our revenues to £100,000 over the next two years and get it up to £300,000 per year by 2007, ' Webster says with conviction. And you believe him.

But the most important message Webster wants to get out to the profession is that giving to the society need not put a massive dent in architectural wallets.

'If every architect contributed the price of a couple of pints of beer a month, ' he stresses with a glint in his eye, 'then it would make a massive difference to a lot of people.'

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