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Lessonsthrough life

Aatif Hassan, Founder and Chairman of Dukes Education, discusses how a father’s wisdom and life changing events forged his belief in the power of philanthropy.

Have you prayed and given thanks for what you have received?” and “How much money have you given to others this week?” These two questions are asked by my father every Sunday morning when I visit him for breakfast. This weekly reflection forms the basis of my belief that our vocation in life is to have a wider sense of purpose about what we are here to do and to leave the world in a better place.

When I founded Dukes Education in 2015, it was with the goal of inspiring young people to lead extraordinary lives. The core tenet of Dukes is found in the name itself, coming from the Latin — ducere to lead. For most people, leadership immediately conjures ideas of military heroes, sporting gods or business stereotypes, but I believe leadership offers so much more than that.

For me, leadership starts with the ability to really understand oneself — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The second, and perhaps the most important element, is service. Service is something that, regardless of technological development and all the distracting newness that surrounds us, is deeply enshrined in our human nature. Through service, young people grow up to have a sense of what’s right and wrong and develop the habit of giving, not just financially, but of themselves, their time, passions and interests.

Combining this sense of service with high performance, using self- knowledge to bring out the very best in ourselves, and driving a sense of adventure and innovation, we create a powerful model of leadership behaviour that can be passed on from a father to his son, and from an organisation’s leadership team to its children, young people and staff.

The creation of the Dukes Foundation is a natural extension of Dukes Education. The Foundation is not a side project or add-on, it is a core strand in the development of the Dukes Education brand and our expectations for our children and our staff. When we look at the challenges facing young people — loss of attention span, increased anxiety, and poor mental health, coupled with the increasing gulf between rich and poor and the huge divisions and conflicts in the world — the Foundation provides an opportunity to role-model leadership and demonstrate positive capitalism at its very best.

There is an increasing amount of scepticism and cynicism about corporations’ perceived greed and that 20th century mentality, the Jack Welch vision that the only purpose of a company is profit maximisation is, I believe, a short-sighted view of the world. There’s a moral obligation for private sector organisations like Dukes to recognise that its stakeholders are far broader than that model suggested. Ours is a holistic approach that involves looking after our staff and their well-being, fulfilling the educational needs of our pupils and, equally, serving society around us.

I fundamentally believe in uplifting the communities that we live in and that serving them provides an opportunity to give back.

Having lived with loss, I know at first hand how vitally important it is that our organisation uses its resources in a positive way to serve others. My mother passed away when I was six years old. As an adult, I understand how much I would have benefited from bereavement counselling following the experience of going to the hospital to say goodbye, and the aftermath of that loss in the subsequent years. When my own son passed away after receiving critical health provision, I experienced both the wonderful care, and the trauma, that people go through at such desperate times. These deeply personal experiences of bereavement as a child and a parent have led directly to the Dukes Foundation’s support for organisations that can help others facing similar experiences such as the Ruth Strauss Foundation for families facing bereavement, Place2Be and Young Minds children’s mental health charities, and Great Ormond Street Hospital.

My own experience with dyslexia and ADHD have also shaped the direction of Dukes’ philanthropy. Having found ways to live with neurodiversity, I discovered a love of reading and the joy of poetry that resulted
in the creation of ‘Poetry Together’ and support of The Queen’s Reading Room. Poetry Together joins young and old people in learning and reciting poems, providing wonderful social occasions for people at both ends of the generation spectrum, as well as the cognitive benefits of rhythm and rhyme and memory skills, while The Queen’s Reading Room charity promotes the love of reading and books. Importantly, our support for these schemes is not simply financial but, through our people, we are able to support them with resources, from helping to build websites, marketing or event management. The power of the collective at Dukes has shown that we are able to do so much to bring about positive change and that will be further amplified through the Dukes Foundation.

Ultimately, my motivation for philanthropy is the joy of helping other people and seeing them succeed. Being a trustee of the British Asian Trust, I was able to visit Pakistan recently to meet the beneficiaries of women’s aid projects. The women from rural areas had been given training and micro loans enabling them to set up small businesses to support themselves and their families and which funded their children’s access to education creating a positive cycle of knowledge and skills — a truly inspiring experience.

The future of the Dukes Foundation is genuinely exciting. In 2024, we will launch the Foundation’s Youth Advisory Board so that young people will have a say in the direction of the Foundation’s philanthropy and, we will use our resources to raise money for what I hope will be the UK’s biggest bursary programme.

The values of the Foundation are rooted in the values of Dukes. I believe the Foundation will be an example of positive capitalism and how private organisations can contribute to the greater good in a time when the government has so many other challenges. We are blessed to have talent, resources and wealth to really influence society.

And I really believe it’s the right thing for young people as well.

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