Interview: Thomas Hughes-Hallett

The chief executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care talks to Sophie Hudson about influencing, advertising and the Philanthropy Review

Thomas Hughes-Hallett
Thomas Hughes-Hallett

Thomas Hughes-Hallett, who has built a reputation as an effective chief executive during his 12 years at the top of Marie Curie Cancer Care, has had an eventful 2011 so far.

His greatest hit has been chairing the Philanthropy Review, a sector-led inquiry into philanthropy in the UK, which in June published its 'call to action' - a list of proposals to encourage more people to give and givers to give more.

Hughes-Hallett says the group had every intention of drawing its work to a close at its final meeting in July. But it has received so many requests to continue - including one from the government - that he says many members of the team will keep going.

"It will be a group of us meeting to see through the recommendations we've made and to keep pushing and pushing," he says. This will include talking to the government about recommendations such as the introduction of lifetime legacies - there has already been a meeting about this with Justine Greening, economic secretary to the Treasury.

"I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her," he says. "I thought the Treasury was engaged and listened to us. I'm hoping to meet her again in the future."

Justify advertising

The year's less successful episode was when Hughes-Hallett gave evidence in January to the Public Administration Select Committee of MPs and criticised the level of advertising by some of the large charities. "I'm not sure I expressed myself very well, because I did irritate a few people, and I absolutely didn't mean to," he says.

His argument is that donors don't mind charity advertising that improves knowledge of services or is for fundraising purposes, but are more uncomfortable with advertising simply to raise awareness.

"From my own experience of 12 years of running this organisation, I think I do know a little bit about how donors feel - and I don't think that they like advertising very much," he says. "As charities, we've got to be incredibly conscious of that. And we've got to be able to justify why we're doing it. If we can justify it, then we shouldn't be ashamed of it."

During his time with Marie Curie, the former investment banker has worked closely with government on numerous projects, such as the recent review into palliative care funding. He says that to work successfully with government, charities must engage in more dialogue with officials and work more with each other to develop a unified voice.

"If we all try to speak, 160,000 voices aren't going to get anywhere," he says. "But if there's a specific issue, like philanthropy, don't try to do it on your own, as Marie Curie, say - get together 20 friends who have real influence and go to see government with one voice. Then you get to see, as we have done with this review, Francis Maude, Justine Greening and Nick Hurd on a very regular basis."

In fact, according to Hughes-Hallett, the sector is far too fragmented in many areas of its work. "I think we've got to be braver about coming together as organisations in the interests of our beneficiaries," he says. "I feel passionately about this, and I'm trying to do something about it."

He gives examples of recent collaborative work Marie Curie has done on end-of-life care with charities such as the British Heart Foundation and St Mungo's.

Donor psyche

Hughes-Hallet is clearly passionate about the sector and says he misses nothing about the private sector.

Understanding the donor psyche is particularly important at the moment, he says, and to combat the effects of the recession Marie Curie has been investing more in finding out what donors want.

"We can see that investing really scientifically in the people we approach, and in the way that we approach them, yields very good results and a really good return on investment, and a return that our donors would be very pleased with," he says.

Hughes-Hallett concedes that fundraising is hugely competitive in the current economic environment, and that the increasing need for charities' services is only making things more challenging. Yet he is determined to be positive.

"Perhaps because of my commercial background, I am a passionate believer in the market place," he says. "If there's a high demand for services and a very generous public, it's pretty likely, unless you manage it very poorly, that the public will want to give more and more money to support the growth of those services."

CV

2000: Chief executive, Marie Curie Cancer Care
1993: Group holding board director and head of global equities, Flemings
1982: Chief executive, Enskilda
1977: Corporate financier, Schroders
1982: Barrister, Inner Temple

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