Obituary: Nicholas Hinton

The manner of Nicholas Hinton's death, whilst on a peace-keeping mission in Croatia with the International Crisis Group, was a metaphor for his life: in action, doing what he believed in, with passion and commitment that few could match. The voluntary sector in the UK and the international community has lost a respected public servant whose wisdom was sought and whose energy was envied by friends and colleagues worldwide.

By 1985, when he became Director-General of the Save the Children Fund, Hinton was already a respected and well-known champion of the voluntary sector, having been Director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations for seven years and also Chief Executive of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro). When he left Nacro in 1977, the Permanent Secretary and senior officials at the Home Office held a reception for him as a tribute to his achievements in that organisation.

In 1977 he joined the National Council of Social Service (later to become the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) at a critical moment in its history. Despite its many past achievements, in the mid-1970s NCVO presented a confused and unfocused image to the world and the voice of the voluntary sector lacked force. With Sara Morrison as Chair, Hinton brought clarity, direction and a new confidence to the organisation, as well as fun and enthusiasm. Although finding little time for gardening whilst at NCVO, he often used horticultural analogies when describing his managerial objectives: he was particularly keen on "pruning" and "making bonfires".

He combined steely determination with down-to-earth realism and the ability to pick a brilliant staff team, winning the support and resources of government, charitable trusts and other backers for his ideas. He was good at spotting issues: the role voluntary organisations could play in combatting unemployment and providing alternatives for those out of work, the importance of cultivating and nurturing local voluntary action as a voice for the voiceless, a provider of services and enabling people to do things for themselves. Above all he spoke up for the vital independence of voluntary action and the need to protect and nurture that quality, regardless of whether it made others uncomfortable.

In 1985 Hinton brought to Save the Children those managerial characteristics that had reformed NCVO. He found an organisation that was cosy and confident but perhaps lacking in ambition and vision. These he was able to provide: as Director-General, he was faced with challenges of global proportions and was immediately brought face to face with the inertia, complexity and bureaucracy of United Nations agencies, whose reform he advocated for many years. Although Hinton was no revolutionary, he was a politician who achieved a huge amount for his constituents - the children and young people of the world - without ever holding elected office. Fortunately for the voluntary sector, he came second in the one Parliamentary seat he contested, for the SDP, in Somerton and Frome, in 1983.

The legacy of reading law at Selwyn College, Cambridge, was apparent in his formidable skills as an administrator. Hinton transformed Save the Children: he focused its mission, raised its income to over pounds 100m and reformed its structures. But amid a welter of activity his office door was always open to give advice or hear complaints. He once described his style as "tough but honourable", a description which would be recognised by the successive Ministers for Overseas Development, Chris Patten, and Baroness Chalker, with whom Hinton worked closely. Always his own man, he combined with this an acute sense of political reality, using his extensive contacts within Whitehall discreetly to bring influence to bear on legislation that better favour- ed children both at home or overseas.

He was a fearless spokesperson. His strong leadership, authority and convictions were qualities matched by those of the Princess Royal, Save the Children's President. Together over 10 years, they worked to build a reputation for the Fund as an experienced and respected authority on development issues.

The contradiction of his life was that he gave so much for others and perhaps left not enough time for himself. Professionally he was a very private person, finding it difficult to articulate his feelings to his closest colleagues. Even after the volte-face of the Millennium Commission in October 1994, who appointed him as their first Chief Executive only to undergo a change of mind, he said little. But it must have come very hard and to all who knew him it was an extraordinary turn of events for a man with such an extraordinary record of successful leadership and wide experience.

He was perhaps reminded of the frustration of his teenage years, when, as an outstanding treble at Salisbury Cathedral School, his voice, after breaking, failed to become the expected mature tenor depriving him of a possible choral scholarship. However, life as a chorister imbibed spiritual convictions which underpinned his life; and which were reflected in both his public and private worlds. His clear sense of service was shown in his support and membership of a wide range of organisations, including directing the Edington Music Festival 1965-70, and chairing the forum panel at the Royal Society of Arts where he was a leading Fellow from 1981 until his death.

Characteristically Hinton emerged from the disappointment over the Millennium Commission with enormous dignity and took his talents to serve as the founder and President of the International Crisis Group, a London-based organisation working discreetly to intervene to prevent conflict. His work with ICG built on his already extensive global connections to implement the Dayton Agreements. His integrity, honesty and fierce intellect commanded respect from the international statesmen and women who worked with him to build a safer, more peaceful world.

Deborah, his devoted wife, was a constant source of support in a hectic and varied life; both she, and his daughter Josie, provided Nicholas with a haven of calm and tranquility amidst a schedule that proved to be too much. Nicholas was a man of big visions whose humour, sense of fun (particularly his colourful socks), and determination will be greatly missed.

Nicholas John Hinton, charity administrator: born 15 March 1942; Assistant Director, Northorpe Hall Trust 1965-68; Assistant Director, National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders 1968-73, Director 1973-77; Director, National Council for Voluntary Organisations (formerly National Council of Social Service) 1977-84; CBE 1985; Director-General, Save the Children Fund 1985-94; President, International Crisis Group 1995-96; married 1971 Deborah Vivian (one daughter); died Split, Croatia 20 January 1997.

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