Jackie Ballard is proud of her new, rather cramped office. It might not be as spacious as the offices she occupied when she was chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss or director general of the RSPCA, and it might lack the grandeur of her Westminster office when she was the Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton, but – the lack of air conditioning aside – Ballard says it suits her fine.
In July, Ballard, 61, became chief executive of Alcohol Concern, the charity that aims to minimise the risks of alcohol by campaigning for legislative change and by educating the public about the dangers. On paper, it is something of a comedown for a woman who has led two of the country's biggest and best-known charities to take the helm at one that employs 14 people and had an income of about £1m in 2014. But Ballard does not see it that way.
"My career in the voluntary sector has been about roles that interest me and offer challenge, and a cause that I can support," she says. "I've not followed the money either in terms of my salary or the income of the organisations I've worked for. If you look at my voluntary sector career, I started at the RSPCA and I've been working my way down in size ever since."
Ballard, who has had no vision in one eye since birth, started out as a social worker before becoming a further education lecturer and then entering politics. No matter what role she has occupied, she says, her aspiration has always been to change the world. "That's what has driven me throughout my career," she says. "Even when I was at boarding school, I wanted to change the rules. I'm one of those people who look at the world and see many things that need fixing."
Alcohol Concern is the fourth charity that Ballard has led since making her first foray into the sector 12 years ago. A five-year stint at the RSPCA, during which it was saved from a perilous financial situation, was followed by another successful five-year spell at Action on Hearing Loss, during which she oversaw its renaming from the RNID.
Two years ago Ballard decided to take her career in a different direction by becoming chief executive of Womankind Worldwide, a relatively small but respected international women's rights charity. She says she hasn't found it hard to switch repeatedly between causes. "There are lots of causes I could be attracted to," she says.
Her time in the voluntary sector has not been without its challenges, however. Her appointment as director general of the RSPCA a year after losing her parliamentary seat was greeted with consternation in some quarters because of her lack of management experience and her strong views on hunting. The Daily Mail branded her at the time "a feminist and failed MP who hates hunting and can't even read a balance sheet".
More recently, her time in charge of Womankind Worldwide did not work out as hoped and she left after only 11 months. "It's a great organisation that's doing great work, but I wasn't happy there," she says. "It wasn't the right move. I was really upset at the time - it knocked my confidence and led me to question my judgement. But when I made the decision to leave, everyone I spoke to said that we all have one of those jobs in our careers where the fit just isn't right."
A year after her departure, she has no regrets about having taken the job in the first place, saying it taught her a lot about herself and the type of organisation she wanted to work for. Nor did the experience deter her from wanting to lead another smaller charity.
What attracted her to Alcohol Concern, she says, was the size of the problem in the UK - there are almost 9,000 alcohol-related deaths in England each year, and costs of £21bn a year in healthcare, crime and lost productivity can be connected to alcohol abuse. She was also tempted by the unequal battle between the drinks industry and those organisations trying to prevent alcohol from doing harm: "On the one side, you have this massive industry that is trying to sell booze and make shareholders happy; on the other, you have a small charity such as Alcohol Concern that is trying to encourage people to change their behaviour to minimise harm. It's a big challenge."
I saw MPs voting on serious issues when they'd had too much to drink
Ballard has been affected personally by alcohol. Her father, who spent some time as a publican, was a heavy drinker and died of cirrhosis of the liver. His drinking, she says, ended up affecting all of her family. But perhaps a bigger motivation was her time in parliament. The four years she spent as an MP made her aware of just how easy it is for people from all walks of life to become reliant on drink. "There was a lot of hanging around for late-night voting, and a lot of MPs would spend that time in the bar," she says. "I saw MPs voting on serious issues when they'd had too much to drink."
Alcohol Concern has experienced a turbulent few years. Four years ago, it had an income of about £1.6m, but this dropped by more than third with the loss of a core grant from the Department of Health. Twelve jobs - more than half of its workforce - were lost, including the full-time post of chief executive. Eric Appleby, the charity's former long-serving chief executive, was brought back on a part-time basis and its east London offices were sold to keep the charity afloat. "Thanks to Eric's brilliant steering of the ship, the trustees were in a position to appoint someone full-time," she says.
Rebuilding staff morale
Ballard's immediate priorities are to consolidate the staffing situation at the charity, because it has found itself reliant on temporary staff, and to rebuild staff morale and confidence in the organisation. "Then I want us to start growing again and diversify our income streams," she says.
About half of its income currently comes from grant funders such as the Welsh government, Comic Relief and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; a further 15 per cent is from consultancy and training fees for its work with local authorities and other partners; and the rest comes from other fundraising activities. But one potential major source of funding remains resolutely untapped. "We don't seek money from the alcohol industry and, if it were offered, we would turn it down," she says. "We want to be independent and free from its influence. This is not true of some other organisations, such as Drinkaware, which is funded by the drinks industry."
Since she took up her post, Ballard says, Drinkaware has approached Alcohol Concern about working together, but discussions came to nothing. "They're not a campaigning or policy organisation and we couldn't see any scope for working together, especially in a way that wouldn't compromise our independence," she says. "Our independence is both our strength and our challenge, because the obvious place to get money would be the drinks industry."
Ballard says there is no single big idea for increasing the charity's income, and it hopes to begin by improving the sums it receives from existing sources.
One lesson she has learned from past experiences is that charities set themselves up for a fall if they are dependent on one source of income. "Whether it's legacy income, statutory income or sale of goods and services, if something dramatic happens, your income goes down the plughole," she says. "You have to have a number of income streams, even though it increases the management load and the skills you need in the workforce if you're trying to do many kinds of income generation. It is particularly difficult to strike the right balance if you have a small staff team."
Externally, she wants the charity to become more public-facing and build on the success of its Dry January campaign, which encourages people to abstain from drinking for a month. The charity will also continue to lobby for its flagship policy of a minimum unit price for alcohol, something that the coalition government agreed at first to implement but shelved last year. "The government says that it is committed to it, but is awaiting the outcome of a legal challenge in Europe," says Ballard. "It says its commitment hasn't gone away, but we want to see something happening rather than just the words." In the meantime, the charity is campaigning for the policy to be included in all of the main parties' general election manifestos, she says.
Lobbying is an activity Ballard knows well: she considers the introduction of the Hunting Act 2004, which the RSPCA campaigned for during her time at the helm, to be one of her biggest career achievements. But does she think her attempts at Alcohol Concern to cajole the main political parties will be affected by the introduction of the much-maligned lobbying act? "I don't think so," she says. "We looked into it and we don't have any intention of registering with the Electoral Commission. We're not supporting the stance of any political party. My general view is that if charities take sensible legal advice and precautions, they should continue lobbying politicians. If we start thinking that changing the world is not part of our remit, we should pack up and go home."
She does not share the view that politicians are less willing to listen to charities than they used to be. "As an MP, there are issues that you instinctively want to support; there are issues about which your party does not want you say anything; and there are issues you don't have the energy to deal with on top of everything else," she says. "For me, the essence of lobbying is finding the key people in power who want to listen to your message. These key people are always going to be there."
Getting stuck in
For now, Ballard is looking forward to getting stuck into her new role and thinking creatively about how to take the charity forward, given its limited resources. In September it moved into the Old Street offices in London of Adfam, a charity that works with families affected by drug and alcohol misuse. The two charities will share a finance director and some other back-office costs, and the two staff teams will also work on the same floor in the east London offices.
"Together we can be better at sharing the meagre funds we've got and, by working closely together, we can learn from each other and share ideas," she says. "I don't think we should have only stand-alone organisations and organisations that merge in the voluntary sector. I think there's a spectrum in between where you can work together but still have your separate brands and identities."
Despite the funding constraints, she has no regrets about leaving behind the world of the big charity. "When you're running the RSPCA, you don't know 95 per cent of what the organisation is doing in detail," she says. "But when you're running a smaller organisation, you need to know about every bit of it because at any time you might be the person who needs to change the photocopier paper. For me, that's really motivating because I have to have a bigger skillset."