There can’t be many people who have moved straight from nursing to running a major charity. But that’s what Laura Lee did.
Under her leadership, Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres has expanded into an organisation with a £12m turnover, and she will be talking to this morning’s plenary session about the challenges of growing a charity.
Lee left home as a teenager to forge a career in nursing. "One tends to set off on a path without quite knowing why," she says. "Nursing was a way of working while training."
A desire to form longer-term relationships with patients convinced her as a young nurse to specialise in oncology and, at 26, she met and helped to treat Maggie Jencks for breast cancer at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh.
Jencks, who had helped to set up Hong Kong’s first hospice, knew what she and other cancer patients needed.
"She was one of many patients I learned from, but she stood out bec-ause she was so articulate," says Lee.
The pair conceived a plan that became the blueprint for a new centre, offering cancer patients practical, psychological and social support.
Jencks sadly died 18 months before the centre opened, but Lee became programme director for the pilot Maggie’s Centres.
"I was well qualified in cancer care, but I had no experience of running a charity, so I spent those months writing a business plan," she says. "I gathered good people to advise me, such as our first fundraiser, Edel Toal."
Lee is frank about how other chief executives should fill their skills gaps. "Employ a good person and listen to them," she says. "The only previous fundraising experience I’d had was in the Girl Guides."
Fundraising in the beginning was crude, but effective, she says: "We mobilised Edinburgh’s community to support us through cake sales, car boot sales and disco nights, and we raised enough for the first year – but we’ve diversified our methods a lot since then."
One fundraising tactic that has worked well is Maggie’s annual Monster Bike and Hike challenge event. "That continues to be a major contributor to our events income – it’s a great platform to engage with supporters and tell them what Maggie’s is about," says Lee.
Many cancer charities are clamouring for financial support, but Lee shrugs off the difficulty of this challenge.
"We don’t feel it’s been hard," she says. "There was a gap in the market and we filled it. The reason Maggie’s still exists and gets funding is that the job has to be done and we deliver a product people need."
Lee says she has learned two things about fundraising. "One is the importance of investing time in quality relationships; the other is authenticity," she says. "I don’t have to sell Maggie’s because I know it does what it does well. We have to believe in it or we shouldn’t be spending money on what we do."
The economic downturn has seen a lot of charities suffer, but not Maggie’s. "By staying focused, we have avoided a fall in income," says Lee. "But we recognise that donations are so valuable to the people giving them that there is a duty of care."
She is optimistic despite the downturn. "The future is bright for fundraising, philanthropy and giving, because people want to feel that they matter and can contribute to a greater good," she says.
Lee warns other charity chief executives against a culture of ‘us and them’ between service deliverers and fundraisers. "It is one group of people driving it to succeed and one brand that represents every aspect of it, as well as recognising the contribution of each individual," she says.
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1998 Chief executive, Maggie’s Centres
1996 Programme director, Maggie’s Centres
1987 Oncology nurse, Western General Hospital
1983 Trainee nurse, Western General Hospital