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David Dangoor: “Education is a treasure that you give someone and they carry with them all their life”

The businessman, philanthropist and long-standing Cancer Research UK supporter tells us about his family’s latest £1.2m donation.

At first glance, Cancer Research UK might not seem the obvious charity of choice for a family of philanthropists historically committed to supporting education. Until recently, their many beneficiaries chiefly comprised universities, libraries and schools. But for David Dangoor CBE DL and his family, there was something so compelling about the way our researchers spoke about their work at an event that it prompted them to learn more about our charity – which led to a gift of £1.1m. In-keeping with their philanthropic objective of promoting education, the donation was to support our About Cancer webpages, a resource accessed by 19 million people seeking reliable and accurate information about cancer in 2019/20.

The family still support those webpages today, over a decade later, and have heaped on further donations since. For example, in 2015, they gave £5m to support the building of the Francis Crick Institute, one of the four research institutes we help to fund and Europe’s largest biomedical research facility under one roof. Recent developments at the Crick include a first-in-human clinical trial of a new drug to treat leukaemia and insights that tell doctors who is most likely – and importantly, who is unlikely – to benefit from immunotherapy. Keen-eyed visitors to the institute might just spot a road running alongside it renamed ‘Dangoor Walk’ to acknowledge the family’s remarkable support.

An enduring relationship

Of their 12-year partnership with our charity, David says, “Our preference in philanthropy is to have a long relationship with an organisation. Once you believe in something, that belief continues.” It’s an attitude that has led to the family being actively involved in around 100 charitable organisations. And now they’re supporting us once again with a £1.2m gift to promote public understanding of and support for the Crick’s work. Plans involve developing new public-focused website content as well as accessible and far-reaching digital communications, including a very large LED screen outside the Crick to engage passers-by. Once again, education features at the heart of their giving. “By sharing knowledge, you can help people help themselves,” confirms David. “It empowers people beyond their own expectation.”

But now that the family are so involved with Cancer Research UK, and given the renewed public appreciation of biomedical research in light of COVID-19, has their focus shifted? With backgrounds in science, David, who studied physics, and wife Judy, who has a PhD in photosynthesis, have always followed scientific advances with great interest, and the global clinical response to the pandemic has of course been no exception. “When biomedicine put its mind to it, it was able to provide not one but several effective vaccines,” he says. “But it didn’t happen in just a year, it was the result of many years of research into human biology at places like the Crick. You need to understand the fundamentals of biomedicine to be ready to deal with threats like COVID-19.”

David allegorically describes this effect as like “groups of people from all over the world, going into a dark cave with nuggets of knowledge and then switching on the light”. More literally he explains, “When someone makes a discovery or contributes new insight, it illuminates the field and connections can be made. You make the whole field more amenable to future discoveries.” And for David, perhaps nowhere does this better than the Crick, to which Cancer Research UK supporters, including the Dangoor family, collectively donated £100 million. The institute celebrates its fifth anniversary this year.

One plus one equals three

“When Cancer Research UK told us that they wanted to bring all these different specialisms into one building in London, which has a unique diversity of people and skills, it sounded really exciting,” David recalls. “Concentrating brilliant people together in a collaborative space allows for the exchange of ideas. In those situations, one plus one equals three. And now that we’ve seen some of the advances they’ve already made, which will help people for generations all over the world, we feel very pleased that we’re part of it.”

But while cutting-edge research into biology and new treatments is vital, David also places a high value on cancer prevention – and education’s invaluable role in that. “We have hardly begun to take advantage of the huge potential of prevention and early detection,” he says, simultaneously acknowledging that nudging people into quitting smoking is “not as sexy” for scientists, politicians or the public as a new treatment for lung cancer. “You may not win a Nobel Prize or discover a new drug, but I feel the goal is wide open in prevention,” he says. “Because preventing someone from getting lung cancer and curing someone of lung cancer results in the same outcome, and the former is easier in all respects.”

A visceral choice

The family’s philanthropic objectives are clearly macro, with a focus on reaching as many people as possible, but their motivations stem from highly personal experiences. David’s mother, Renée Dangoor, died of breast cancer in 2008. And it was his father, Sir Naim Dangoor, who instilled the importance of education and, latterly, philanthropy in David and his siblings. Naim fled Iraq with his family in 1963 after the situation for Jews worsened to the point where their lives were under threat. He had to leave behind a hard-won portfolio of successful businesses. “All he took with him was his family and his education,” says David. Once in the UK, Naim built a property business and when that became successful, he started giving back. And so began a vocation in philanthropy.

“My father had developed a different perspective on the transience of wealth, and he wanted to show thanks to the UK for having taken us in by helping others,” says David. “So, education was a very visceral choice for our family. It’s a treasure that you give someone, and they carry with them all their life.” And for David himself, a chance encounter with a roadside altruist left its own indelible impression. “Shortly after I passed my driving test, I found myself stranded with no petrol or money,” he recalls. “A man stopped and poured half of his own can of petrol into my car. When I told him that I didn’t know how to thank him, he said I should buy a can myself and help someone else. I realised then that helping others is the best way to show gratitude.”

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