Interview: Owen Sharp of Prostate Cancer UK on the importance of being blokey

A freshly shaved, post-Movember Sharp, the chief executive of the cancer charity, tells Tim Smedley why he has led the charity to a bolder, more in-your-face approach to addressing men about their health problems

Owen Sharp
Owen Sharp

Owen Sharp dreads the first day of November. Because Prostate Cancer UK is a major beneficiary of Movember, the hirsute men's health movement, for one month every year he is obliged to grow a moustache. We meet on the last day of Movember/November and he is itching to shave it off (he insisted on being photographed for this feature a few days later, in December).

"In the first week you can see people looking at you when you're in meetings, thinking 'what is that?'" he laughs. "My nightmare would be having to do a TV interview with a moustache - and that can happen."

What he doesn't dread is the money that comes pouring in. Movember accounted for £16.8m of the £26.6m raised by the charity in 2012/13 - it has contributed directly to the rise and rise of PCUK. In the accounts to March 2010, total incoming resources were just £11.4m. When Sharp became chief executive in 2011, the organisation wasn't even registering in the Charity Brand Index top 100. It's now at number 29.

But the story is far from just a dumb-luck link-up with Movember. Shortly after Sharp joined the Prostate Cancer Charity (already four years into its Movember partnership), he instigated a rebrand and a merger with Prostate Action. The resulting organisation, Prostate Cancer UK, dropped the NHS-coloured logo and impenetrable medical leaflets in favour of a bold, in-your-face approach.

"We just stopped and asked 'why are we here?'" says Sharp. "The key thing about prostate cancer is that, more than anything else, it's about men. That's who we had to speak to. So we started simplifying how we speak, being more direct and bold."

In this new era there have been campaigns featuring Bill Bailey cracking nuts with a sledgehammer and short films with the ever-snarling Ray Winstone. PCUK is now the official charity of the Football League.

But Sharp didn't start out quite so blokey himself. After failing to get his expected A-level grades, he didn't get a place to read English at university and instead followed his mother into nursing. As a boy raised in Cambridge and doing a nursing degree in Glasgow, he admits he was relatively unusual. Often posted on male wards, he nursed people who were facing life-ending diseases. "But I've never laughed as much as I did with those patients in Glasgow," he says.

Sharp during Movember

He liked making a difference, he liked the team-oriented nature of the work and increasingly he liked management. "I'd always seen the benefit of management," he says. "After I qualified, I only ever worked in A&E, which is the ultimate in hands-on. But I also loved thinking about how you best deployed resources, how you got the best out of the whole team collectively, how you organised the shifts." So Sharp got onto the graduate management training scheme, and so began a career in NHS management - one he thought would see him through to retirement.

That was until Victim Support, the charity for victims and witnesses of crime in England and Wales, approached him about a director of operations position. "It was about relationships with other agencies," he says. "Victim Support works with the police, the government, the Home Office - these were aspects of things I had seen in various parts of my NHS career."

The chief executive, Gillian Guy (now head of Citizens Advice), sold it to him as a role about mergers - which would in effect see 77 separate charities become one national organisation - with the opportunity to redesign and reshape its services.

It was a challenge he couldn't turn down. "As a manager and a leader within the NHS, you are trying to steer the oil tanker, in a sense," he says. "You come into the charity sector and there really is an opportunity to be more responsive, more flexible. There is a different and probably more invigorating leadership challenge here."

When Guy left in 2010, Sharp stood in as interim chief executive and was disappointed not to be offered the position permanently, losing out to Javed Khan. But now, with a wry smile, he says: "Probably it was good for them, and certainly it was good for me."

When going for the top job at the Prostate Cancer Charity, he immediately thought back to his time in Glasgow. "I remembered a guy called Danny, who I nursed 25 years ago," he says. "Danny had not been ill for a single day in his life, but was suddenly told he had advanced prostate cancer. He was sitting in the corner of the surgical ward and had no ability to even articulate how he felt about it, let alone to know what to do. Culturally, he'd not been brought up to think or talk about his health."

According to Sharp, these are the same issues facing the charity today. Raising awareness and bringing the disease - by far the most common cancer in men in the UK - into the male consciousness became the goal. "Men's health inequality is just a big, big issue", says Sharp, passionately. "There's no biological or social reason now for us to sit here and say it's all right that men die seven or eight years earlier than women do. We all just kind of accept that as the way it is. But it's so often about late diagnosis and not having early interventions."

Getting men through the door of the GP's surgery is a key battleground for PCUK. The Men United campaign, backed by Bill Bailey, the Football League and others, aims to build on the brash approach established by the 2013 sledgehammer campaign. Bailey, whose father-in-law was affected by the disease, spoke of Men United being about "manning up to face it, and stepping up to demand better care"; PCUK described the approach as "unashamedly masculine".

Is there a risk, however, of being too blokey and alienating women? And shouldn't other men's health causes be included for it to live up truly to the name Men United? Sharp says that the inspiration for Men United was the success of breast cancer charities in recent years with engaging calls for action such as Race for Life. He says that "women tend to be very supportive of the approach we take because of the way it connects with men. A woman whose husband had been diagnosed told me: 'The way you were presenting the information helped me to get him to go to the doctor, and I'd been nagging him to go for five years.' They started that conversation after one of our messages appeared in a football programme."

Sometimes you do find charities that exist to compete with one another, charities that define themselves as not being the other one

As for whether Men United should really include testicular cancer, heart disease and other major killers of men, Sharp says that "thinking about prostate cancer as a specific issue is going to get you into the process of thinking about your broader healthcare. Prostate cancer is a cause of mental health issues, of relationship issues, and there's a chance you will have diabetes as well - we can't isolate ourselves from that."

Nor can PCUK isolate itself from other cancer charities. There are 573 charities registered in England and Wales with "cancer" in their names, and 50 with prostate cancer listed in their charitable objects or activities. "As a broad generalisation, if you asked the public if there are too many charities, I think they would say yes," admits Sharp. "We can do more if we all come together, and merger can be a way of doing that. Sometimes you do find charities that exist to compete with one another, charities that define themselves as not being the other one."

He says he doesn't have a magic answer, but closer collaboration is something he is trying hard to pursue. The recently launched Movember Centres of Excellence bring together people with learning and experience from several cancers. PCUK also joined forces with Breast Cancer Care for the 2012 London Marathon under the banner of Team PB (a play on words with the Olympic Team GB, as well as on Team Pants and Bra - participants competed with both sets of underwear on display).

"That was a great example of the sum of their parts being definitely greater than the two individual charities," Sharps says. "I think we need to do more of that as a sector, and that's one of the challenges for us." Although Team PB was a one-off for Olympic year, PCUK has maintained a relationship with Breast Cancer Care, including joint corporate partnerships.

The right to lobby

Collaboration on lobbying is also needed across the sector, says Sharp. He defends the right of charities to lobby and sees the lobbying act as "a dangerous and blunt instrument". But he recognises the risk of charities, particularly those in the healthcare sector, constantly lobbying and turning up to talk endlessly to MPs and ministers. This, he says, allows government to "cop out, because they have just heard 50 different views. We have to give consensus views, and realistic ones that are not too off the wall."

Drugs procurement is a good example. The coalition launched the £200m Cancer Drugs Fund in 2010 to make available cancer drugs that had been rejected as too expensive for the NHS. Great in principle, says Sharp, but in practice it has created perverse incentives in the system. The companies, he says, are not looking as hard at their prices for cancer drugs as they might at those for other drugs, because if they don't get approved by National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, they are picked up by the CDF, which does not currently assess price. It also pits cancer charities against each other, each arguing the case for their specific drug of choice. "It hasn't worked and it's got to be sorted out before it spirals out of control," he says.

Internally, PCUK offers a small example of improved communication and collaboration between multiple stakeholders. Rather than endlessly tugging at heart strings, fundraiser engagement techniques appeal increasingly to the head.

Supporters and donors have been invited to seminars and laboratory visits to meet medical researchers in person and see their work. "There's a danger that research is seen as just collecting a shedload of money that we send off to big institutions, and nobody sees the difference," Sharp says. "It's important that the researchers have the opportunity to speak to the people who fund them and have personal experience of the disease."

After this interview, Sharp has the evening's end-of-Movember party to prepare for. Already in an ebullient mood, he talks about his love outside of work: US sport. Despite being a southerner with an "estuary accent", growing up near American army bases in Cambridgeshire exposed him to more baseball diamonds than most. But there's also an outsider, against-the-grain element that seems fitting. The sensitive male nurse who embraces his blokey side; the passionate NHS staffer who relishes the agility of independent charities.

When he finally went to the US to watch the New York Yankees baseball team, which team did he decide to support? The lowly, no-hope opposition that day - the Tampa Bay Rays. The underdog, of course.

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