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Interview with Lord Shaftesbury

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper is the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury. We ask him about his charitable work, and his interest in disability.

*Photos by Tom Oldham


Livability was created in 2007 by the merger of two charities, the Shaftesbury Society and John Grooms. Both organisations were inspired by Victorian visionaries who were passionate about helping the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury was one of Britain’s greatest social reformers, whose broad-ranging concerns included education, animal welfare, public health and improving working conditions.

Today Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, shares his ancestors’ passion for charitable causes and supports a variety of disability organisations.

For example, he recently organised the Great Shaftesbury Run, opening his Dorset estate to runners in order to raise funds for a variety of charities, including Livability’s Victoria Education Centre and Sports College.

Livability decided to ask Lord Shaftesbury about his charitable work and his interest in disability-related issues.


Why is getting involved in charitable work so important for you and why are you especially interested in organisations that support disabled and vulnerable people?

We have a long history of philanthropy in the family and it’s something we take seriously. I believe we all have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Lord ShaftesburyYour ancestor, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was one of Britain’s most influential politician and reformer. Were you aware of this when you were growing up? How did it impact on your life?

The Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury is a huge inspiration for me. I really became aware of his importance when I attended the centenary of his death at Westminster Abby, when I was 7 years old. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the address, which was extremely moving. I realized then what a man he must have been. It’s a huge honour to have someone like that in your family.

Why did you decide to start your own fundraising event this year, the Great Shaftesbury Run?

I am a passionate runner and I wanted to create an event that would bring people together and also bring awareness to the causes I am involved in. We are embarking on a big restoration project at home and so it felt like the right time to open the doors to the estate and let people in.

For this year’s Great Shaftesbury Run you chose Livability’s Victoria Education Centre and Sports College as one of the projects that would benefit from the funds raised. How did you become aware of their work with disabled youngsters?

I had known about Victoria School as it was part of the Shaftesbury Society, which is now Livability. It is also close to our home in Dorset, so it’s easy to get down there and to see all the great work that’s done. When I visited the school in 2009 they asked me to be a patron of the Sparkle Appeal and I was honoured to take on the role.

Do you think that your own experience of sustaining a serious back injury that left you temporarily unable to walk has made you more receptive to the type of issues a disabled person can face?

Definitely. I constantly think about how my life could have changed and what I would have done. It made me realise how much I took for granted. It was the toughest thing I have faced and then it makes you realise how courageous and brave people are who have much more to deal with.

Disabled people are still some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the UK, what do you think we as a society could do to support them more?

I think we need much greater awareness and recognition around disability and the challenges people face. It’s also about having an attitude of focusing on what people can do rather than can’t. With the paralympics on home soil in 2012 we have a real opportunity to bring these issues into focus.

Do you have any more big charity challenges, such as the Great Shaftesbury Run, planned either as an organiser or as a participant?

We are currently looking at a range of different ideas for events at St.Giles. We are doing the Great Shaftesbury Run again in 2012. In the meantime, I am off to do the Ultra-trail du Mont Blanc at the end of August, which is 166km’s around Mont Blanc. It’s something I wanted to do before my accident, but it got delayed.

Livability organises the Shaftesbury Lecture every year at Harrow school. We are always keen to invite speakers who have had successful careers in a variety of fields and have shown great leadership skills.  What do you think are the qualities of a great leader and how do you think we can inspire young people to achieve their potential and also to become the charity campaigners of tomorrow?

I feel a great leader has the ability to connect with people and inspire them through a clear vision. I think we must encourage young people to follow their hearts and to not be afraid of failure or rejection. To remind them that they can make a difference.

What is it you most admire about the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury?

His perseverance.

Livability is a charity with a new brand and name but also with a long-standing historical heritage. How do you think it is possible to combine both modernity and traditions to remain relevant and inspire others?  

I think it’s about focusing on the values and principles that have stayed true over time. We can learn so much by looking at our history and its important that we learn from it and use it to inspire us in what we do today.