William Sieghart, 51, is founder of Forward Publishing, a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel and chairman of Forward Thinking (www.forwardthinking.org), a charity seeking peace in the Middle East and acceptance for British Muslims.
The 2011 Forward Prize for Poetry, founded by Sieghart’s Forward Arts Foundation, was this week awarded to John Burnside for his collection Black Cat Bone.
What is the first charity you supported?
A friend and I organised swimming races for eight to 10-year-olds. We raised nearly £8 for Guide Dogs for the Blind, which we chose because it was the only charity we’d heard of.
What do you get out of your giving?
I sold Forward Publishing when I was about 40 and have spent the past decade working solely in the charitable sector. After making enough money, the idea of earning money for the sake of earning money and to pamper oneself further didn’t really seem to be rewarding. Charitable work gives me a sense of authenticity and purpose.
Which cause do you feel most strongly about?
Poetry, peace and the homeless. Poetry came from an unhappy time at boarding school. Like many people who turn to poetry when they’re feeling low, I discovered a description for my feelings that I didn’t have the vocabulary to express myself. So poetry became my friend. For peace I started Forward Thinking, which does frontline politics and mediation in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. I came up with StreetSmart, the homeless charity, when I was a director of the Groucho Club [in Soho, London]. It started there and spread.
Is the National Lottery a useful charity or a tax on the poor?
It’s both. My battle as chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel was precisely about that conflict. When I arrived they’d spent £1.5bn on white, middleclass projects. When I looked at the queues of people buying lottery tickets, they were poor people of all hues. Getting £20m spent on more diverse projects was probably the toughest battle I’ve had to fight.
Why support the arts when people are starving?
In Cuba I met the arts minister. He was late for the meeting and said: “I’m so sorry but we’ve had a hurricane and I’ve been taking the clowns, musicians and artists to cheer everyone up.” I think that makes the point. People can starve with an empty soul and you can feed that.
Why do prisoners deserve charity?
Prisons are disastrous places to send young offenders, likely to turn them into lifetime criminals. Every prison charity that I’ve worked with has helped to make that less likely.