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  • Writer's pictureJon Dean

On Savile and charity

CW: child abuse, sexual assault, harassment

Back in the mists of time (well, November 2019), I ended up with three hours to kill in the departures lounge of San Diego International Airport, as you do. The flight back to Heathrow had been delayed, there was very little open, and after four long days, and lots of jet lag after attending the ARNOVA conference, I just wanted to set off.

However, in a stroke of luck, also attending that conference, and also delayed back to London was Rhodri Davies, the erstwhile wise owl of philanthropy, and someone who I’d actually met in the departures lounge going out, saying hello using the immortal line ‘I’m Jon Dean off-of Twitter’. So, me and Rhodri, with a long wait followed by a long flight ahead of us did whatever two self-respecting British academics would do and got a bit drunk.

At one point, because I like to alienate people I barely know, I started telling Rhodri (and I’m sure at this point my loquaciousness was stunning) about my new book in horrifying detail. I explained how The Good Glow (AIAGB) was about how charity wraps the charitable in an aura of benevolence, maybe protecting them from awkward questions, as their goodness is more socially unquestionable.

‘Ah’, said the wise owl, ‘like Jimmy Savile?’

Damn. Hadn’t thought of that.

It’s horrible to admit, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Savile from then on. I’d been aware of the charitable element to that awful story, but not really engaged with the full details when reports into his past came out following is death in 2011. But from November 2019 I was left thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s a perfect case study of the point I was trying to make. Wish I’d done a chapter on it.’

When people get home from trips abroad, they usually spend some time decompressing, unpacking, catching up on sleep. They don’t as far as I’m aware, do what I did, which was to order every second-hand book the internet had to offer on Britain’s most notorious paedophile.

From early 2020 until around June 2022 I worked on a piece on Savile, and how his fundraising and charity enabled him to commit so much abuse. The outcome of that work is now published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, entitled Charity and abuse: Fundraising and symbolic power in the case of Jimmy Savile. You can read it for free using that link.

The article draws together as many of the stories and examples as possible of the ways in which Savile’s charity and fundraising enabled his abuse. Like the Oxfam Haiti child abuse scandal, and the President’s Club dinner, there is a lot of focus on sexual harassment, gendered violence, and child sexual abuse within the charity sector at the moment. The big point I always try to make is that if something exists in society, it’ll exists in the charity sector as well, even if its character is of the best of people.

Savile is perhaps the most extreme example of that. As I say in the abstract:

In life, Jimmy Savile was revered as Britain’s greatest charity fundraiser. In death, he is remembered as Britain’s most notorious paedophile. Raising over £40m for good causes throughout his media career, a year after his death several investigations revealed a history of abuse of hundreds of children, mostly young girls, across the institutions he worked or volunteered at.

He, more than anyone else, used the good glow to shroud his crimes. Accounts are littered with times people questioned his behaviour, but stopped because he was known as a saint for his good deeds. Or complaints were hushed up ‘because he raises so much money for us.’ It is terrifying that so much goodness, the symbolic power the institution of charity provides, can effectively cover-up so much evil.

The article is in two halves. The first, uses published accounts (particularly Dan Davies’ extraordinary piece of journalism In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, for which I very grateful to Quercus Press for giving me permission to quote at length) to bring to readers attention the many ways charity played a role in Savile’s ability to commit his crimes through access to vulnerable girls, and avoid suspicion or challenge.

The second half focuses on a more structural analysis of what’s going on, trying to draw together themes from neoliberalism (Savile’s position as the vanguard of Thatcher’s economic policy meant he organised the fundraising to rebuild Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and used his position to abuse victims there), alongside the sociology of elites, power in the charity sector, and what lessons for safeguarding practice we should take (the Jay report got missed because of Tory party shenanigans but is fundamental reading for anyone working with children). I conclude:

Elite philanthropy that, bound up with the exercise of power and bestowing esteem on the character of the person providing the gift, is inherently risky in a world where institutional abuse is an ongoing and ubiquitous social problem. ‘Saviles’ are thankfully uncommon, and we should avoid seeing darkness in every giving heart – but they are far more common than the sector likes to admit sometimes, and safeguarding is a constant process, not an occasional distraction when it is uppermost in our thoughts.

I hope people read it and get something from it. Thanks to Rhodri for the idea, and thanks to those who helped develop this work along the way. Most importantly, society is indebted to the survivors of Savile’s crimes whose bravery means we remember him today as he really was. I have made donations to charities working to end child abuse.


I’ve read lots of books and accounts about Savile’s crimes, including those by survivors, as well as the official reports produced by organisations like the BBC and multiple NHS trusts. The suffering, the torture, the violence is absolute. But one question I got asked frequently when presenting or discussing this work was ‘How do you cope with reading such material?’ I never really had a good answer, beyond ‘I just didn’t.’ While I have suffered awful trauma in the past, I’m fortunate it doesn’t affect me day-to-day. I’m lucky and privileged enough for this not to trigger any previous experience in me, and others will not be so lucky. Those in research who have suffered horrific trauma sometimes lean into connected research subjects, because they feel they have no choice, owing it to themselves. Others will move as far away from that subject as possible.

I certainly don’t want to do much more of this, and would love to spend more time in the joyous end of the voluntary sector again. I just hope more people will tackle this sort of focus in future, as safeguarding seems something voluntary sector researchers are loathe to talk about.

Services helping survivors of child sexual abuse can be found here:

Survivors UK:

Victim Support Europe:

The Survivors Trust:

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