City signing brings new energy to pioneering Sparks charity
City corporate lawyer turned charity CEO Zillah Bingley is “buzzing” she says.
Having travelled through the professional wormhole from corporate world to charity world, the 46-year-old high flier is relishing the challenges of her role at the pioneering children’s medical research charity – happily rising at 5am to be in the office for 7am to meet them.
“The thought of what we can achieve with the team we have is so fulfilling and energising,” says Bingley who is equally motivated by the fact that each year, less than £10 per child in the UK is spent on research into child health, while one in 30 babies are born with a condition which may affect them for life. “That is insane,” says Bingley, who channels a positive, straightforward, no-nonsense, can-do ‘head-girl’ energy that instils confidence.
Bingley’s aim is to take Sparks to “the next level” drawing on her corporate skills and networks to turn it into corporate partner material and more than double its income to £10m a year.
“I know that is not easy, but it is doable,” says Bingley, who see Sparks as a perfect City corporate ‘charity of the year’, with its huge number of celebrity events and sporting challenges, a glitzy Winter Ball fundraiser, a Royal patron in the shape of HRH Princess Michael of Kent, and the high impact nature of its ground-breaking research.
Sparks has already come a long way since disability campaigner Duncan Guthrie started it in 1960 to help find a cure for poliomyelitis after his daughter Janet was struck down by the viral infection. Indeed Sparks’ research was the basis for the vaccine that has eradicated Polio in the UK.
Since 1991, with the backing of a sporting hall of fame including footballing heroes Jimmy Hill, Sir Trevor Brooking and 1966 World Cup winning hat-trick scorer Sir Geoff Hurst and legends such as Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matthew Pinsent and Denise Lewis who have served as Presidents, Sparks has broadened its brief.
It now funds research in a wide range of areas including birth asphyxiation, childhood cancers, cerebral palsy, premature birth, pre-eclampsiaand spina bifida. It has funded more than 270 ground-breaking research projects, totalling £27 million in around 80 hospitals, universities and research institutions across the UK and overseas.
Sparks has achieved enormous successes; including pioneering research that led to the development of cooling therapy which has reduced the number of babies who die or suffer severe brain damage as a result of birth asphyxiation and is now NHS standard procedure.
Sparks’ funded research team at Bristol and Swansea is now developing the cooling therapy with the use of one of the ‘noble’ gases; xenon, a close periodic table neighbour of helium and neon: “We don’t know exactly why it works yet, but when it is used, babies who have been starved of oxygen at birth go on to thrive and seemingly develop normally,” says Bingley, who tells the story of one-year old Oscar who received the treatment following a traumatic birth and is now seemingly a healthy toddler.
It is the scale of Sparks’ successes that Bingley believes will help make it attractive as a corporate charity partner. “Research is costly but when it is successful the impact is enormous and can help thousands of children for future generations. I think this will appeal, particularly to the City. Of course, with research there is risk, but the risk is highly calculated.”
Applications chosen as possible Sparks contenders undergo rigorous review by a panel of leading medical experts and by a panel of parents who inform on how any research might impact family life so that of the 100 or so applications received, around 10-15 could be funded but currently funding is available for only about five per year.
As a result of such rigour, each funding round takes a year. Currently, alongside the Xenon gas programme, Sparks is funding a project to find an alternative to antibiotics to treat Gonorrhoea that can cause blindness in babies at birth; into congenital heart defects and helping more children survive childhood cancers.
Bingley describes her CEO role as somewhere between a “high-wire and a magician’s act,” and says it could have been written for her, taking in her “love of performance; desire to develop individuals and particularly children; a fascination with science and a marketing and legal background.”
Luckily Bingley has many strings to her bow – including quite literally as a one time cello player for, and trustee of, The Fulham Symphony Orchestra. Having grown up in a creative West London household, one of three daughters of publishers, Bingley’s professional career began with thoughts of being a doctor. She graduated from Southampton University with a biology degree but took a legal path and spent 14 years with Freshfields Bruckhous Deringer, involved in high profile mergers and acquisitions, before moving into a business development role.
Along the way Bingley has done her fair share of charity work, including building houses in Romania and South Africa as part of the law firm’s Habitat for Humanity programme, spending 10 years as a Sunday evening hospital radio DJ at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, working with the Military Wives Choirs Foundation and more recently has been a trustee of a small foundation set up in memory of a close friend.
But Bingley’s desire to decamp to the charity world in a professional capacity coincided with “a time when I started to feel I was losing touch with who I was and I wanted to contribute more broadly to society. I feel very fortunate and have been given many opportunities in life and have always felt giving back was the right thing to do.”
Now Bingley is in role, she is drawing on all her skills as she spends time getting under the skin of Sparks, “fixing the plumbing, galvanising the young team, encouraging innovation and building brand awareness.”
From emptying dishwashers and putting up whiteboards to strategising the future, Bingley is determined to see Sparks achieve its full potential.
Just as Sparks’ ‘poster girl’ Zoe has done. The 16-year-old has been supported by Sparks since she was just the length of her father’s watch strap; born prematurely and with mild cerebral palsy. “She is now taking her GCSE’s and lets nothing get in the way of her ambitions.
“She is an absolute delight and to see how Zoe has developed as a result of Sparks is totally inspiring,” says Bingley. “She is the embodiment of our belief that all children should be given the best possible start in life and a medical condition or disability should not be a barrier to opportunity and fulfilment.”
To find out more or donate to Sparks go to www.sparks.org.uk