The armed services veterans who move into charities

There is a long tradition of former servicemen and women entering charities. Patrick McCurry finds out if Colonel Blimp is still among them

James Cowan: chief executive of the Halo Trust
James Cowan: chief executive of the Halo Trust

There's a long-established tradition of people (mostly men) moving from the armed forces to the charity sector. A large number move to armed forces charities, but many go to non- military organisations. Current high-profile examples include Simon Gillespie at the British Heart Foundation and Paul Boissier at the RNLI.

But the stereotype of the former military man retiring from the armed forces to run his charity like an army unit is mostly out of date, according to those who have made the switch.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the food poverty charity FareShare, spent 10 years in the army and says the caricature is not the reality. "The 'Colonel Blimp' character, leaving the army for a charity job and telling everyone what to do, might have existed in the 60s and 70s, but not any more," he says.

Boswell, a former chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, distinguishes between those who join the voluntary sector after a full career in the armed forces and those who are younger. "If you've spent your whole career in the military, you will have taken in that perspective and mindset, and it will be harder to adapt," he says.

But James Cowan, who became chief executive of the landmine clearance charity the Halo Trust earlier this year after 33 years in the army, says he is aware of the dangers. "I'm willing to show humility and I'm in listening mode," he says. "I understand that I have a lot to learn."

He adds that he brings transferable skills. "The charity is similar to the army in that there are a lot of people spread across the globe and many of them face significant physical risks," he says. "I'm very experienced at facing those kind of challenges."

Former rear admiral Richard Leaman, chief executive of Guide Dogs, argues that ex-military people bring many skills applicable to the voluntary sector. "My time in the navy taught me a lot about leadership, above all else, and inspiring people to do great things," he says. "It also got me accustomed to managing budgets, finding efficient ways of working, making decisions and internal and external communication."

Leaman says the navy also gave him experience of managing organisational change, which has been invaluable in helping him alter the way Guide Dogs is organised. He argues that ex-military people are solution-oriented, which is extremely valuable when they join the voluntary sector. "We get things done," he says.

Some former military people say they have faced prejudice in the voluntary sector. "It was clear to me quite quickly that being ex-military in the voluntary sector could be toxic," says Boswell. "You are judged and labelled by people, which is ironic, given that the sector prides itself on being inclusive."

Leaman says: "The problem sometimes is people's perceptions of what a military person will be like, even when they are self-evidently not like that. It can inhibit the building of good relationships at first."

The Halo Trust's Cowan says it is misguided to see former armed forces personnel as all of a similar type. "The armed forces are huge employers," he says, "so you're bound to get a whole range of people."

He says that many people have an outdated view of the armed forces: "The modern military is not about ordering everyone around, but about inspiring people and bringing them with you."

Boswell agrees. "The armed forces have changed," he says. "A lot more recruits have degrees and are aware of different perspectives. Many great voluntary sector leaders have begun in the military."

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