How Norwich woman put the fun into fundraising

She's enlisted elephants and garden gnomes to her cause, met royalty, staged an impromptu strip show and helped make millions for charity. Theresa Cossey, who has just stepped down as a trustee of the Big C charity, talks about putting the fun into fundraising. She spoke to ROWAN MANTELL.

She's enlisted elephants and garden gnomes to her cause, met royalty, staged an impromptu strip show and helped make millions for charity. Theresa Cossey, who has just stepped down as a trustee of the Big C charity, talks about putting the fun into fundraising. She spoke to ROWAN MANTELL.

All her life Theresa Cossey has fizzed with money-making ideas. Elephants and garden gnomes were early stars of her fund-raising fervour, and over the past 30 years she has helped raise millions for Norfolk charity Big C – with everything from huge society events to tiny table-top tombolas. She has encouraged people who have run marathons, rafted across the Channel, embarked on sponsored tandem rides in pantomime costume, raced hospital trollies and auctioned anything from bedspreads to baby donkeys.

Theresa is, quite simply, a phenomenal fundraiser. Since 1980 she has raised big, big money for Big C, and despite the decades of hard graft, she still believes fund-raising is all about having fun.

'Fundraising should be without the final 'd'; it should be fun, and if it stops being fun you should stop doing it,' she said.

That fun has funded hospital wards and equipment, paid for practical and emotional support for cancer patients and their families, and set up teams of scientists researching treatments and cures.

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This summer Theresa is handing over some of her Big C responsibilities, but not because she has lost her passion for the charity.

'When you get past 70 it's time for younger people to take over and bring some fresh ideas,' said the 73-year-old, who has just stepped down as a Big C trustee. However, Theresa, of Little Plumstead, near Norwich, is not escaping completely. She will still run the fundraising ladies' club she set up six years ago, and has also been made a vice president of the charity.

Theresa joined Big C as a volunteer fundraiser just months after it was founded. Founders David Moar and Clive Bamford bonded during arduous journeys to and from London for cancer treatment. With no local facilities to treat their illness, they had to travel to the capital for care. They wanted facilities for future patients closer to home, and launched Big C in 1980.

Clive was a work contact of Theresa's husband, Ray, and soon persuaded the couple to help.

It was already a cause close to Theresa's heart as her mother had been battling cancer for several years.

Later, Ray was diagnosed with cancer too – and, like many, many thousands of local people, benefited from projects funded by Big C.

The original ambition was to set up cancer wards in Norwich, for in-patients and day treatments.

This new, local, charity immediately grabbed people's attention – and hearts and cash.

'The money just kept coming in,' said Theresa. 'We had the support of the press behind us from the word go.'

The Big C became the Norwich Evening News Christmas appeal. Readers raised thousands of pounds. Twenty years later, another Evening News appeal raised a phenomenal �1/4million.

The original Big C target was �1million. Today, the fundraising total has topped �17million.

'I would have laughed and said 'don't be ridiculous!' if anyone had told me at the start how much we would raise,' said Theresa. 'When we started we had nothing at all. Sometimes it's been very hard work, but I have always enjoyed fundraising.'

She was a young businesswoman when she got involved in her first big charity event – a fashion show with the Wroxham Ladies Circle (the female branch of the Round Table).

When the next event arrived, the circus was in town in Yarmouth. Theresa explained: 'I went through guess the weight of the cake, guess the weight of whatever, and decided we'd do guess the weight of the elephant!'

'I called the circus and they were only baby elephants, well toddler elephants, and we had to take two because they wouldn't be separated!'

She arranged for a lorry to be weighed, before and after the elephants were loaded and driven to Wroxham. Here Theresa charged people to guess their weight, and to queue up and meet the animals, making even more money for Priscilla Bacon Lodge.

Spurred on by the power of an offbeat idea, Theresa invented the 'Society for the Preservation of the Garden Gnome'.

People were invited to enter their gnomes in contests and gnome passports were issued for gnome reunions.

Gnome-lovers all over Norfolk, and beyond, were captivated. Soon gnome-related fun was bringing in lots of charity cash and Theresa was being invited to play a giant part in the world of the tiny garden people.

She was thrilled with the money but, years down the line, admitted that gnomes had never been her outside ornament of choice. 'I actually think there should be a society for the persecution of the garden gnome,' she revealed.

Theresa was born and brought up in Norfolk. Her business career included running toy shops and helping with a model agency. It is only when pressed that Theresa discloses she even modelled herself, saying, modestly: 'I used to fill in when we were short of people.'

She saves her pride for Big C's achievements.

And of all the Big C projects she has worked on, she is most proud of the family centre at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Opened in 2006, it took 10 years to get it from concept to reality, but Theresa said it was worth every minute of effort. 'It's brilliant,' she said. 'It's got a family atmosphere, away from the hospital. We didn't want to have anything medical in it. People can come and have a cup of tea, or a chat, or a cry, as well as all the services we offer.

'Helping the families and supporting people at home has got more and more important.'

She is also proud of the Big C charity shops she helped launch, and which continue to fund vital work.

Theresa's husband, Ray, was commercial manager of Norwich City Football Club for 18 years – and in awe of her fundraising skills. 'One year we raised more for the Big C than the commercial arm of the football club made!' said Theresa.

Theresa and Ray have two children, four grandchildren and one great grandchild, with another due in September. And Theresa seems to have passed on her charity gene.

'The children and grandchildren have always been brought up to be involved,' said Theresa. 'They did lots of sponsored things when they were little and next year my youngest granddaughter wants to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, cycle from London to Paris and sky dive, all for Big C.'

But she said people don't have to climb mountains or jump out of planes to raise money. 'Lots of our money came from coffee mornings or raffles; lots and lots of little things soon add up.'

Whether the money comes from small-scale, or massive, events, it is spent locally.

Some goes to research taking place at the University of East Anglia. 'We are very proud that we helped kick-start the cancer research programme there,' said Theresa.

Donations have come from as far afield as America. Theresa herself was often willing to go the extra mile if it meant more cash – sometimes literally, as she drove out to receive oversize cheques, sometimes metaphorically.

'One of the most embarrassing times was at a bingo hall which had raised �1,000. That was a lot of money then,' said Theresa. But customers were prepared to give even more if she cut the manager's clothes off.

He was wearing a worn-out suit, so she wielded the scissors, to music.

'I cut one sleeve off, then another, spun it out a bit, cut his shirt, his tie, his trousers and he was down to his boxers,' said Theresa. 'He assured me he had Y-fronts underneath, so off they came!' But still the crowd were calling for more. Luckily, his whisper that he was wearing a g-string underneath was correct.

In 2000, Theresa was made an MBE. Her charity work had already taken her to a Buckingham Palace garden party, where she had three conversations with the Prince of Wales.

Recounting them now, she betrays another talent. Her impression of Prince Charles is pitch perfect. She admits to having done a little acting, as an extra in local television dramas. And much more recently, she and her youngest granddaughter could be glimpsed as extras in Kingdom – set in Swaffham and starring Stephen Fry.

Husband Ray worked as a cinema manager and estate agent before joining Norwich City staff. He was also a regular on Radio Norfolk and very involved in the Big C campaign in his own right.

But, in a cruel turn of fate, the family which had done so much to help local people cope with cancer, was forced to fight the disease. Ray was diagnosed with prostate cancer. 'We were the same as everyone else,' said Theresa. 'We heard the word 'cancer' and just thought 'Oh my God!'

However, Ray was successfully treated. 'Knowing what we were doing with the appeal, we were far more positive about conquering it,' said Theresa. But then came the shocking news that he had mouth cancer too. Through all the treatment Ray and Theresa held on to the fact that their efforts over the past three decades have helped ensure cancer can be fought, and often defeated, locally.

Philip Blanchflower, chairman of the Big C, said: 'Theresa was the principal driving force in establishing the position Big C now has with the public. This was achieved largely by her natural ability for fundraising, where she is always original, well-organised and fun to work with, not only persuading the public to part with their money, but also many local firms to supply us on rather more generous terms than perhaps they expected to.'

He said the cancer information centre was originally Theresa's idea and finished: 'I know Theresa's commitment to Big C will never diminish.'

She plans to spend more time at her north Norfolk caravan, but she will still be fundraising. She supports other local charities too, and if friends help her raise funds for Big C, she donates to their cause too.

So what is it that drives the woman who was committed to battling cancer long before it became personal? 'Cancer is something that can affect anybody, and if it affects someone you know, then you just want to help. I want to help other people, and hope that if I ever need something in the future, then there will be someone to help me,' she said.