Obituary: Des Ryan, charity leader

Des Ryan, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Cyrenians. Picture: Contributed
Des Ryan, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Cyrenians. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 26 June, 1957, in Reigate, Surrey. Died: 15 April, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 55

Des Ryan, chief executive of Edinburgh Cyrenians, died on 15 April at the tragically early age of 55, after a short illness. Throughout his adult life Des put his many talents at the service of the most marginalised in society, making a huge impact in pioneering innovative responses to deep-rooted social problems; and also through his contribution to significant advances in Scottish social policy.

Born and brought up in Surrey, Des first worked with homeless people as a volunteer at a London day centre in 1976. There he met his future wife, Anna, a native of Edinburgh. In 1982 Des set up a homelessness project, thereafter joining Leeds Cyrenians. He was appointed to the helm of Edinburgh Cyrenians in 1988.

Under Des Ryan’s leadership, the organisation gained widespread recognition for continually pioneering new solutions to contemporary problems. Edinburgh Cyrenians grew more than tenfold and expanded well beyond the city boundaries, providing services also across the Lothians and in Falkirk, Fife, Aberdeenshire and south-west Scotland.

For Des, the desire for Cyrenians to grow was not to satisfy personal ambition: it was solely to be able to assist more people and make a bigger difference.

Des’s reach extended yet further. Through his membership of the Beattie Commission he influenced the Scottish Government policy on the importance of embedding employability work alongside the supports offered to vulnerable people.

Prior to this, conventional wisdom dictated that there was little point in discussing employment with homeless people, since work was hardly their top priority.

Des maintained that, on the contrary, meaningful occupation could offer a route out of homelessness and an important step on the way to a settled life.

He believed passionately that everyone has something to contribute and both they and society gain from them being able to make that contribution and realise their potential.

He was a key member of the Homelessness Task Force which led to the adoption by the Scottish Parliament of the historic 2012 target, with cross-party support. This in effect afforded all unintentionally homeless people the right to a settled home.

In one of his last blogs – Des was a wordsmith of great talent – he celebrated that achievement:

“It’s hard for me to convey in words how far we’ve come from the world of large-scale doss houses, soup kitchens and rough sleeping that I came into as a volunteer in the mid-seventies, and the prejudice and stereotyping of people experiencing homelessness that went with those terrible conditions.”

At the same time he expressed his concerns about the severe challenges ahead due to the impact of prolonged recession, welfare reforms, reductions in public spending and lack of affordable housing.

Always looking forward, Des was an astute strategist and frequently ahead of his peers in discerning what would be needed to equip his organisation to thrive in the future. Cyrenians Homelessness Prevention Service was cited in the Christie Commission Report as a demonstration of best practice, befitting Des’s role as a long-standing proponent of early intervention and prevention.

In 2002 Cyrenians began looking at social enterprise as a means of delivering its mission and subsequently set up Scotland’s first food waste collection and recycling service using this model.

In a move which exemplifies Des’s entrepreneurial flair, in 2011 Cyrenians sold its organic recycling enterprise to one of the fastest growing FTSE 250 companies, MITIE.

Des Ryan’s approach to engaging with any person or organisation was encapsulated in the phrase, “Do as you would be done by”.

He sought to identify common ground and created a long list of collaborations and partnerships across all sectors. Long before corporate partnerships were de rigueur, he brokered a partnership with Standard Life that endures 20 years on.

The very first Standard Life secondee devised an outcomes-based monitoring and evaluation framework back in 1994.

This is a classic example of Des Ryan’s unfailing ability to equip Cyrenians to face the challenges of tomorrow, long before most people have glimpsed what they will be – in this case recognising the trends in accountability and public sector contract culture which would require a capacity to report on impacts rather than inputs.

Des’s professionalism won him wide acclaim and credibility. In 2007 he was the winner of the prestigious Sieff Award for innovative partnerships with business, presented to him by HRH Prince Charles.

In its review of homelessness charities in the UK in 2008, independent analysts New Philanthropy Capital identified Edinburgh Cyrenians as one of the top ten to be recommended to social investors: “a uniformly strong organisation with a comprehensive and high-quality portfolio of services for homeless people”.

Away from his work, Des was devoted to his family. In his spare time, his favourite means of relaxation were to swim and to cook – though as he said, with characteristic dry humour, “not at the same time”.

Unassuming, articulate and courteous, he was a hero and inspiration to many across the voluntary, private and public sectors for his absolute integrity, dogged pursuit of social justice and consistent respect for each and every individual he encountered.

Des summed up his values in his application for the post at Cyrenians 25 years ago: “I think that the most important quality I have developed in all work with other people is a positive approach to problem situations and an optimism about the possibilities that exist in change. I am not always right. I welcome constructive criticism. I value and respect other people for who they are, though I might wish them to be happier with themselves. That, in short, is why I’m in this line of work.”

He is survived by his wife Anna and children Sadie, Tom, Martha and Paddy.

An event has been planned for the afternoon of Wednesday, 24 April to celebrate Des’s life and commemorate the way in which he touched so many lives.

Details are available at