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Zillah Bingley

Bringing hope in difficult times

Zillah Bingley, Chief Executive Officer of UK children’s charity Rainbow Trust, held various roles at Freshfields for almost 14 years. She tells our alumni network about her time with the firm and her move into the charity sector.

'Unusually for a lawyer, I took my degree in genetics,' Zillah reveals. 'But after graduating, I found myself working as a paralegal at Freshfields. One of my first tasks was working on the high-profile rights issue for Eurotunnel, the company that, at the time, was overseeing the construction of the Channel Tunnel between England and France'.

The business of law

Her interest in the law piqued, Zillah then went on to do a conversion course and landed a training contract with the firm, after which she worked in the corporate team. Over the next 10 years or so, more high-profile deal work followed. But Zillah became increasingly interested in the business of law, and, in 2002, became head of corporate business development.

‘At the turn of the millennium, Freshfields was – as it still is – an exceptional law firm. But lawyers were less proficient in marketing and business development than they are now,’ she says. 'Saying that the Bank of England has been a client since 1743 is obviously something Freshfields can be very proud of. But not all organisations – particularly potential clients – would necessarily relate to that'.

Another area of Freshfields that Zillah became interested in was its charitable work. 'I took full advantage of the opportunities Freshfields gave me to be involved with worthwhile projects. For example, the firm had a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, as part of which I went to Romania and South Africa to help build houses. Closer to home, I also did some maths teaching at Tower Hamlets and mentored a girl at Haggerston School, an institution with which Freshfields still has a relationship'.

In 2007, Zillah started with Mercer, the consultancy firm, where she worked on M&A too. But rather than ‘getting the deal done’, she advised clients on implementing post-transaction integration and change programmes to the combined workforce. 'As a deal lawyer, it’s sometimes easy to forget that, for the parties involved, closing means the hard work has only just begun'.


Charity foundations

In 2010, while still at Mercer, Zillah was one of the founders and trustees of The Martin Paterson Foundation, a small cancer-research charity. This marked the beginning of Zillah’s professional move into the charity sector. After leaving Mercer, she held various roles, including chief executive of Sparks, the children’s medical research charity, and since 2017 has been leading Rainbow Trust.

'We support families that have a terminally ill child,' Zillah says. 'There are two strands to our work. The first is providing emotional support across the whole family. For example, siblings can feel very isolated when the parents are focused on their sick child. The second is practical. Our family support workers provide transport to and from hospital, do school pick-ups, play with sick children and siblings, and have even helped clear out garden sheds and attics. You could say that sometimes we’re simply giving these families some time to come to terms with having their world turned upside down'.

Emergency appeal

Of course, the current coronavirus pandemic has turned almost everyone’s world upside down to some extent. With events cancelled due to social-distancing measures, the charity sector, like many others, faces a difficult 2020. 'We're entirely reliant on donations. With no fundraising events possible, our funding has been cut dramatically. So we've launched an emergency appeal in order that we can continue supporting the more than 2,500 families we currently help through what, for them, are even more uncertain times'.

Zillah says that what is hugely gratifying is the way in which the family support workers are adapting very creatively to the lockdown, with fewer face-to-face interactions as families shield their terminally ill children. 'We're recognised as key workers in this pandemic and are providing support through video calls, telephone and text. We continue to take children and their families to vital medical appointments such as chemotherapy and dialysis, deliver crucial medications and groceries to families' homes, and even transport breast milk from mothers isolating at home who are unable to visit their very premature babies on the neonatal ward even to feed them. I'm so proud of the entire team at Rainbow Trust and their resilience and passion for the families we support'.

Once the lockdown ends

Despite the pandemic, Zillah remains upbeat. 'The lockdown has shown how people are willing to help each other out. If we become a more caring society once the pandemic has passed, that bodes well for the charity sector and, most importantly, the people we’re trying to help. We just need to make sure we’re able to survive and continue the amazing service that Rainbow Trust provides largely intact'.