'I never wanted to run CoppaFeel! forever'

Kris Hallenga's response to a breast cancer diagnosis was to start a charity from scratch. Rebecca Cooney talks to the co-founder of CoppaFeel!, who recently stepped down as chief executive

Kris Hallenga
Kris Hallenga

When Kris Hallenga said she was stepping down as chief executive of CoppaFeel!, the breast cancer-awareness charity she started at her kitchen table with her sister in 2009, it was all of a sudden and with aplomb. "I have news!" She wrote on the charity's website last December. "But it's not of the crap cancer variety."

She was quick to dismiss the inevitable suggestions that the stage-four breast cancer she has been battling for the past eight years had reached a point where she was no longer able to work. As she pointed out in the announcement, she has been pretty unwell for most of that time, but it has not stopped her from working.

Instead, she wanted to avoid falling into the trap of "founder's syndrome" and chose to step down as chief executive at the relatively youthful age of 31.

No regrets

Speaking two months on from her departure, Hallenga says she has no regrets. She says she and her twin sister Maren, who stepped down as the charity's business development director last autumn, tried to avoid restricting the charity's progress, but felt the time had come to make sure they never will. "No matter how open and liberal Maren and I have been, it's always going to be in the back of people's minds that it's our 'thing' – and we wanted to avoid that," she says. "We gave it everything and we never really wanted to run it forever."

Hallenga's own battle with cancer has run parallel to the development of the charity. At 23, she was told a lump in her breast was cancer and that late diagnosis had allowed it to spread to her spine.

This late diagnosis had been "for the stupidest reason", she says: a lack of awareness that young people should be checking for cancer as much as their older counterparts. Two months after diagnosis and one week into chemotherapy, Hallenga called her friends and family together and CoppaFeel! was born.

Young, female and happy to repeat the word "boobs" as many times as it takes to get young people to check theirs, Hallenga had the energy and determination to propel CoppaFeel! from obscurity to a charity with a national profile.

But Hallenga had never intended to run a charity at all. "The word 'charity' didn't really sit well with me," she says. "I didn't feel it was what was needed for what we were trying to do: I just wanted it to be a message, a campaign, a call to action."

It wasn't until CoppaFeel! attended its first music festival and someone suggested it should have a bucket out to accept donations that Hallenga realised she would need to fundraise to continue the work she had started.

One reason she'd hesitated to do this, she says, was that "in my head the image of a charity was old, stagnant and male. It says a lot that, at 23, that was what I thought.

"You have to use the charity label wisely: in the UK, people like supporting charities, but I don't think it helps that young people have that image of them."

Aside from its young and brash approach, CoppaFeel! differs from most charities in other ways. The charity's nine staff are all women, though three men, including the chair, sit on its trustee board. "We don't consciously employ only women, but we don't get many men coming to interviews," Hallenga says. "I don't know if it's because we are so boob-obsessed and they feel intimidated by that.

"Interestingly, however, it's only when we've advertised the higher-level leadership roles that we've started interviewing men, although obviously none of those we've ever interviewed have suited the role."

'Lacking female leadership'Hallenga's replacement as chief executive at CoppaFeel! is Natalie Kelly, its former director of marketing, communications and brand, who has been with the charity since 2015. "It felt amazing to be one of the very few female leaders," says Hallenga. "And even though I wasn't set on the new chief executive being female, I'm glad she is."

And as a long-serving chief executive, what does she think of female leadership in the sector? "Well, it's lacking, isn't it?" she shoots back. "When I go to conferences or events and there are a lot of older men, I think 'is this the dynamic approach the charity sector needs right now?'" She pauses: "No, it's not.

"I'm not someone who thinks women need to lead everything for the world to be a better place, but it takes a mix and it's about giving everyone the opportunity. Who knows? Maybe if there were more female leaders the sector wouldn't have the image that it does."

But some charity leaders have been incredibly supportive. Hallenga says Samia al Qadhi, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, has been a constant friend and mentor over the years. Other established cancer charities have been receptive to the arrival of a young upstart on the scene, recognising that CoppaFeel!'s strategy of reaching young people by speaking their language isn't something they can suddenly start doing overnight.

And it was to the more established organisations that Hallenga turned for advice when The Sun newspaper approached her in 2014 with a surprising deal to run a weekly campaign on the paper's controversial Page Three, urging young women to check their boobs. The deal was worth an estimated £1.5m of free publicity and the chance to reach 1.7 million readers. The deal could not easily be turned down – the charity had an annual income of £475,000 at the time. "There were a lot of sleepless nights," Hallenga says. "I asked Samia and Chris Askew [then chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer] what they would do in my shoes. They said 'we couldn't do this' – Chris had Prince Charles as a patron – but they said to me 'what have you got to lose? You are a young, nimble charity and you want to get the issue solved. If it means being big and risky, then go for it.'"

The response, Hallenga says, was phenomenal. In the first week alone, hits on the CoppaFeel! website increased by 2,000 per cent and thousands of women signed up to the charity's monthly text service reminding them to check their breasts.

But it wasn't all positive: "There were certainly people who came forward who just lurved to have an argument," Hallenga says, and some breast cancer sufferers branded the campaign insensitive.

"I knew that was coming because obviously there's a lot of sensitivity about it," she says. "But my argument was that it wasn't for them; it was for the people who hadn't been diagnosed yet. That made sense to me, as someone with the disease."

Many of the reactions were personal attacks levelled at Hallenga herself. They were "not very sisterly", she says wryly: one her biggest bugbears, she says, is that the media and charities often portray breast cancer sufferers as a "pink and fluffy" sisterhood.

"I don't think having breast cancer changes you into this amazing, wonderful person who becomes friends with everyone else who has the disease," she says. "You're not friends with everyone; no one is, of course. It's OK to be who you are, before, during and after cancer."

And, as the head of a charity, she was keen to be seen as more than "the girl with cancer". "I was always very conscious of it at work – the two never mixed," Hallenga says. "I was very much a boss when I was at work but, when I was at hospital, I was the girl with cancer. It was important to me because I never wanted people to support me for the wrong reasons, because they felt guilty if they didn't.

"I know there's a chance I got a lot of 'yeses' over the years because I have cancer. That's OK: I've used it to my advantage and to the charity's advantage, though it's not always right."

Hallenga and CoppaFeel! have been shortlisted for numerous awards over the years. In 2009, Hallenga won a Daily Mirror Pride of Britain Award, which catapulted the charity to national media attention and provided a much-needed morale boost to her at a time when the effects of the chemotherapy were really kicking in. But the nominations that meant the most to her, she says, have been those that recognised her as a charity leader. "I've been very honoured by all the awards: I didn't have much choice in getting the cancer, but to achieve something as a chief executive is hard work."

She says the charity has reached the point where it is credible on its own merits and no longer needs her, or her cancer, as a figurehead. A recent trip back to her old office proved her leap of faith was the correct decision. "It's the best feeling ever seeing them just getting on with it and having the confidence to do things without us," Hallenga says. "I never thought we'd get here."

Further challenges do lie ahead for the charity. CoppaFeel!'s income grew to more than £1m in the last two years of Hallenga's tenure. Most of this has come from donations from corporates and individuals, but Hallenga acknowledges that the charity will probably have to diversify its funding to ensure its future sustainability.

'Fundraising isn't everything'

But although fundraising is important, she says, it isn't the be all and end all for a charity whose goal is to educate the public. "It does frustrate me when someone says 'how successful are you?'," she says, "and then the next question is 'how much money have you raised?'

"Is that really the perception of success for an awareness charity? I want us to be challenged on our impact – if charities were challenged more on that aspect, then people would care less about the fundraising."

As for Hallenga herself, she has just celebrated her eight-year "cancerversary" and plans to take a breather. She isn't cancer-free and might never be, but says it's important that when she says she is "living with cancer", the emphasis is on the word "living".

She hopes to focus on the book she's been trying to write for two years, based on her blog How to Glitter a Turd. The book will look at her journey from diagnosis to having a life with cancer and becoming leader of a charity.

"Apart from that, I haven't got anything big planned," she says. "When I do, I'll make sure everyone knows about it."

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