Interview: Alison Wallace

The new chief executive at ShelterBox, which dismissed her predecessor, wants to seek support nationwide

Alison Wallace
Alison Wallace

The past year has been something of a horror story for ShelterBox, the disaster relief charity that provides emergency tents and aid. Tom Henderson, its founder, was removed as chief executive last July over an allegation that he tried to place a £650,000 order with a company connected to his son, and then one board member resigned and three of 20 affiliated international groups decided to leave.

Earlier this year, Henderson set up another disaster relief agency, Shelter for Humanity, and last month he was arrested on suspicion of fraud and money-laundering offences related to his time at ShelterBox. Henderson, who denies any wrongdoing, was questioned with two other men.

The daunting job of moving ShelterBox forward from these shocks has been handed to new chief executive Alison Wallace, a New Zealander who moved to the UK in the early 1990s and was most recently director of international fundraising at Amnesty International.

Wallace, who joined in April, says she was approached about the role and found it hard to turn down. "Amnesty was close to my heart, but I was tempted by the opportunity to have an organisational impact," she says. "ShelterBox is at that point where, with some clear planning, investment and objectives, it's going on the next stage of its journey."

For Wallace, that means turning ShelterBox into a major international aid organisation that receives support from across the UK. The charity was founded 13 years ago in Cornwall and a high proportion of the financial and volunteering support it receives comes from the south west.

"People in the south west are passionate, committed and generous supporters of ShelterBox," she says. "That is the kernel of the idea of what we need to do nationwide. We need to use what we've done in the south west as a springboard for what we can do nationally."

Wallace has spent her first 100 days getting to know the charity and gaining an understanding of disaster relief and emergency aid. The next 100 will be spent drawing up objectives to help it to grow. "My background is in fundraising and it's clear that the trustees have recruited me with that in mind," she says. "We need to pin down some objectives about the number of people we can reach and the amount of income we need to do that."

Regular support

Income for disaster relief charities is unpredictable. Major disasters tend to lead to a surge in donations, but these fall away at other times. ShelterBox's income was £16.2m in 2010 - the year of the Haiti earthquake - but dropped to £6.1m in 2012. She therefore views raising the level of regular support the charity gets from across the UK as a priority, so that it can respond to other humanitarian crises that don't make headline news.

To make this happen, Wallace will split her time between Cornwall and London, where four of the charity's staff work, mostly on fundraising. She views the London office as central to the plans for growth. "It's important that ShelterBox has a presence in London," she says. "It's where the other aid agencies are and we want to strengthen our contacts there. We want to take part in and influence the sector. For better or worse, that's based in London."

Wallace is unable to comment on Henderson's arrest because of the continuing police investigation, but says she has been pleasantly surprised by staff morale since she joined the charity. "Two or three individuals who directly supported Henderson went almost at the same time he did," she says. "There hasn't been that much turnover apart from that - people look beyond one individual and see the work we do."

She says she partly expected to face a "trail of people" at her door saying how dreadful things had been, but that didn't happen. "There was a break between Henderson leaving and me joining, and they were ready to get going on the next stage. It was more like 'thank God you're here'."

And how does she view the creation of Henderson's new charity, Shelter for Humanity, just 11 miles away from the ShelterBox head office in Cornwall? "We don't view it as a competitor or an annoyance," she says. "Some of the bigger aid agencies are scaling back on their emergency shelter work, so presumably there's room for two or three shelter specialists."

Wallace says she doesn't feel daunted by taking over from Henderson. "He has done a job of enormous value, setting up an organisation with a committed volunteer and supporter base," she says. "But it's time to take stock and to make the changes that will allow the charity to become a global aid organisation. That plays to my skill set and background - the previous stage played to Tom Henderson's skills."

CV:

2013: Chief executive, ShelterBox
2006: Director of international fundraising, Amnesty International
2002: Director of fundraising and communications, Friends of the Earth
1999: Head of fundraising, British Refugee Council
1997: Donor development director, Orbis International UK
1995: Direct marketing fundraiser, Greenpeace

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