Dogs Trust CEO Clarissa Baldwin is retiring after 40 years at the charity – but it’s not the end just yet, as Mark Kebble discovers when visiting her Islington home to reflect on four decades.
Talk about anniversary overload. When I visit Clarissa Baldwin’s Islington home, we reflect on the fact she has lived in the area for 20 years, which correlates with the opening of Dogs Trust Angel, which in turn is celebrating a 10th anniversary for its Freedom Project – and then there’s the small matter that 2014 marks Clarissa’s 40th year working with the charity.
‘I had been in this glamorous job doing PR,’ she looks back to her first interview with Dogs Trust. ‘It was in a fabulous part of London, just behind Oxford Street, but it was one of these cranky old houses on five floors, with no carpet, bare boards, no heating, and nothing was ever in the right place at the right time. I got the job and it was only a six month contract to help raise the profile of the charity, so I thought I’d see how it all goes.’
It’s fair to say it went pretty well. Known as the National Canine Defence League in 1974, there were only 12 people in the office working for the charity – today, they have nearly 1,000 staff. Dogs Trust is now world renowned and is the largest dog welfare charity in the UK. Growing up, I vividly remember the slogan ‘A Dog Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas’ – which was Clarissa’s handiwork. ‘It was more of a joint effort with the family,’ she says modestly. ‘I was given the task to come up with something that encapsulates what we are trying to do, as cheap as we could as we had no money, and which was memorable. A tall order!
‘But it is iconic and is in the English Dictionary of Quotations. It has been used and abused – so many different companies have used it – and if you look at some advertising today you get to the end and you wonder what on earth they are trying to say! I think because the slogan was a very simple statement that says in a few words exactly what’s in the tin that people warmed to it.’
I cannot begin to imagine what Clarissa has seen in her time with the charity – and we do chat about some horror stories – but I am struck by how positive she is about their work. As we are joined by two canine neighbours, Patrick and Gus (both rehomed via Dogs Trust), I decide to put Clarissa on the spot and ask for her three most memorable occasions over the last 40 years. ‘Being honoured by the Queen is amongst one of the very special days of my life,’ she says (Clarissa was awarded an OBE in 2003). ‘Another day I really loved was going back to the floor – I was a kennel maid for a day. That really gave me an insight into just how hard these kids work! Then one of the most frightening times was shortly after I joined when I was asked to look after the charity’s mascot dog, a cross between a Borzoi and a great, big dog. We lived in Little Venice at the time and we had a 6ft high wall in the garden. I left it in the garden and came back about ten minutes later and it wasn’t to be seen. I was absolutely terrified! Anyway, he was two gardens down: he had leapt over this 6ft fence – I thought I had lost the charity’s mascot dog!’
She talks about many of the dogs that have come through the charity like they were her own – I defy your heart not to melt when hearing the story of Wonky, who was born with legs that didn’t work, but who through constant care is now happily running around – and with news coming through that Clarissa’s 40th year with Dogs Trust will be her last, I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it will be for her to move on. ‘It’s a most heartbreaking decision,’ she admits with a sad smile, ‘but when you get to an age and it’s constant decisions and you are responsible for people’s lives and 16,000 dogs a year, you probably need someone younger.’ What will she do with her new found free time? ‘Difficult to know!’ she laughs. ‘I am hoping the charity will keep me busy doing things for them on a voluntary basis.’ Here’s betting that we will be celebrating another Clarissa Baldwin landmark in a few year’s time.
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