The charity, which teaches people to become better leaders, ran its first course on Tyneside in 1989 and now operates in over 100 countries around the world. Each year 4,000 people go through the courses with a thriving office still operating in the North East.
Hundreds of leaders from the world of business and politics gathered at the Baltic art gallery in Gateshead to celebrate a quarter century of Common Purpose.
The celebration, though, was a rare public event for an event that has been accused - wrongly, it insists - of operating in secret and using that secrecy to gain links into many areas of public life.
Those accusations came to a head two years ago when a number of articles in the right-wing press accused it of operating “like some giant octopus with tentacles into every cranny of the inner sanctums of Westminster, Whitehall and academia.”
The organisation was caught up in a number of newspapers’ anti-Leveson inquiry coverage because David Bell, part of the inquiry’s assessors, is a trustee of Common Purpose.
“It was utterly ridiculous stuff,” said Fiona O’Connor, operations director of the charity in the North East. “Though perhaps one positive thing to come out of that is that it made us look really carefully at what we do and how we can be more open about that. Once you reach a particular size and gain prominence there will always be people who want to knock you down, but we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing.”
The charity operates under the Chatham House Rule, which means that information discussed should not attributed outside charity meetings. Common Purpose says this encourages people to speak freely, though it has added to the accusations of secrecy which surround it.
When asked by The Journal for a list of its alumni, none was forthcoming, though its website does advertise freely that its graduates have included North East Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham, Stephen Bell, chief executive of the charity changing lives (formerly the Cyrenians) and Lieutenant Colonel Simon Pritchard, Commanding Officer, Royal Marine Reserve.
It has also worked with a who’s who of organisations in the region, including Northumberland County Council, Teesside and Sunderland universities, Dickinson Dees law firm, Nissan, Greggs and Metro operators Nexus.
Mr Ramsbotham speaks on the charity’s website of his experiences on the Common Purpose course in the mid-1990s.
He said: “I was able to look at the bigger picture because of the Common Purpose approach. It completely opened my eyes to all the other sectors that over the years we’d probably slightly insulted, and showed that they are all very dedicated and that their view point is very valid.
“I’ve ended up undertaking a range of extra curricular roles at a pretty senior level and I wouldn’t have had the courage or indeed the understanding to contribute to without going through the Common Purpose experience.”
“We’ve worked with some of the biggest companies and charities in the region,” said Fiona. “From the John Lewis executives in Newcastle, to Changing Lives and Barnardos.
“We believe that if we can teach people to be better leaders at work then there will be some overspill into society - and quite often when people realise how much they have to offer, and as a happy coincidence they become more involved in the community as non-executive directors or volunteers for charities, or school governors.
“We are always looking to reconnect with alumni who we may have lost contact with, so please get in touch if you were involved in Common Purpose in the early years, or if you have a story to share with us about your time on Common Purpose we’d really like to hear it,” she added.
The charity’s founder Julia Middleton - at the centre of much of the media storm that surrounded Common Purpose in 2012 - was back on Tyneside for the anniversary celebrations, and outlined the debt the organisation feels to the area.
She said: “I have fond memories of launching our very first Common Purpose course in Newcastle in 1989. Many UK cities wanted us to launch with them but it felt right for us to be in Newcastle and, we had such great support from key people in the city - including the then leader of Newcastle City Council - which enabled us to test out the first ever Common Purpose here. The passion and the commitment of our supporters, and of our staff, gave us the confidence and momentum to grow.
“From there, Common Purpose has become arguably the biggest leadership development organisation in the world and Newcastle has never claimed the credit for this or stolen the benefits which is testimony to generosity of spirit the North East is well known for.”