The indisputable top cat

Peter Hepburn, chief executive of Cats Protection, says you don't have to be mad about cats to work here, but it helps.

Peter Hepburn. Photograph: Newscast
Peter Hepburn. Photograph: Newscast

On his first visit to Cats Protection, before he had even met anyone, Peter Hepburn saw a cat. "I thought that was lovely and symbolic," says the new chief executive of the charity.

Although it's not part of the job specification to be mad about cats, Hepburn admits it's a bonus. "Thousands of people all over the country work hard for cats and the charity, and you have got to be able to identify with them," he says.

The charity's Cats and the Family Survey 2007 offers a snapshot of the nine and a half million cat owners in the UK. It shows that the average owner spends six hours a day with their pet; and 28 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women say they would even change their partners in order to keep their cats.

"I'm not surprised," says Hepburn. "For some people it's on a par with their human relationships. Our research also shows that for many children a cat can be the figure they confide in the most."

Hepburn says he is a "100 per cent cat lover" and has two from the charity's adoption centre, Skittles and Scrum. He has also been a volunteer fundraiser for the charity. But his career in the sector has mainly been confined to human beneficiaries: most recently, he was deputy chief executive of Victim Support, and he is a trustee for Anti-Slavery International.

The move from Victim Support to Cats Protection seems like a leap, but it has nothing on Hepburn's earlier career move. "I used to work in the construction industry, so I have seen both sides of the fence," he says.

The move has given Hepburn some firm views on the trend towards imitating business practices in the sector. "It's naive to pick up business concepts and carry them across, expecting them to work," he says. "The voluntary sector is far more complex than the private sector, where your target is profit and everything has to support that. Volunteers can be far more professional and committed than business people."

The head office of Cats Protection is in the beautiful surroundings of Ashdown Forest in Sussex, and it really is cat heaven. The foster centre positively gleams - if the cats could take up permanent residence, it's a fair bet many of them would.

Staff visit the centre in their lunch-times to cuddle the cats. "They mustn't be cut off from people," says Hepburn. Volunteers also come in to help.

Like many animal charities, Cats Protection benefits from the generosity of donors who just can't resist a fluffy animal. It has an income of £31m a year, although Hepburn wants to increase this so the charity can build up its reserves to 12 months' of expenditure. "Our real resources are our 6,000 volunteers, who are worth nearly twice as much as that," he says. "I'm proud of them all."

Although Hepburn says some volunteers are in their teens, he admits most are older. This may account for the fact that 60 per cent of the charity's income comes from legacies. It's doing its best to overcome the perception that its donors are mostly old dears living alone with their cats. It is trying to attract more support from men and has started to fundraise in the gay and lesbian press.

"Everyone can relate to cats," Hepburn says. "To an extent it's the powerlessness of animals that compels people to give to charities like ours."

One of his most pressing concerns is updating Cats Protection's strategy so that it can grow. "One of the exciting things about this job is to look forward 10 years and try to imagine what the world will be like," he says. "Whoever your beneficiaries are, you should be committed to high-quality work, and all ours starts with the needs of the cats."

Hepburn CV

2007: Chief executive, Cats Protection
1999: Deputy chief executive, Victim Support
1988: Finance director, Stonham Housing Association
1983: Head of finance, Christian Aid

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