Mike Adamson: my plans for the British Red Cross

The humanitarian charity's new chief executive, tells Andy Hillier that he wants to extend the work it does

Mike Adamson
Mike Adamson

Mike Adamson is a rarity among the chief executives of Britain's biggest charities: he hasn't come straight from the private or public sectors, or moved from another charity, but has been promoted internally to head the British Red Cross, the humanitarian charity that had an income of almost £230m in 2013.

He was appointed permanently as chief executive in October, having done the job on an interim basis since April when his predecessor, Sir Nick Young, stepped down unexpectedly after 13 years following the death of his son.

Adamson was managing director of operations from 2010 and has worked for the charity for a total of 15 years, but he was not a shoo-in for the top role. "The board went through a rigorous external recruitment process and I had to compete all along the way," Adamson says. "I'm delighted to have got the chief executive role and I'm delighted that we went through that process."

He is far from a dyed-in-the-wool charity man. He started out as a management consultant before taking a pay cut of almost 50 per cent to join the BRC in 1992.

"I'd done some volunteering at university and had developed a strong social consciousness," he says. "In my 20s, I worked in Swaziland in a private sector role, and this gave me the sense of the need that exists. But at 30 I realised that working in the private sector wasn't going to motivate me for the rest of my life."

There are more similarities between charities' activities and those of organisations from other sectors than perhaps we acknowledge

Adamson had a range of jobs, including head of international development, during an initial 11-year spell at the British Red Cross. He then went to work in the NHS and after that joined the RNID, now called Action on Hearing Loss. He returned to the BRC in 2010. "I'm from the sector and it's a feeling of social purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning, but I've always been curious about what we can learn from other sectors," Adamson says. "There are more similarities between charities' activities and those of organisations from other sectors than perhaps we acknowledge."

He has taken the helm at a busy time for the charity. In 2014 it responded to five major international disasters, including the Ebola outbreak in west Africa and the Syrian conflict. It also supported more than 9,000 people affected by flooding and extreme weather in the UK last winter.

Adamson's priority for 2015 will be to implement the charity's new strategy, Refusing to Ignore People in Crisis, the creation of which he was heavily involved in. He describes it as "evolutionary, with revolutionary moments", and says the aim is to stretch the charity to help more people after a crisis. "We were really proud of how our staff and volunteers rose to the challenge of helping people affected by flooding and extreme weather last winter, but we need to know more about the recovery needs of those people," he says. "It's all well and good to help them in the rest centre, but recovery can take many months for some people."

He also wants the charity to make more use of technology. The private sector has been better at this, he says, not only in its interactions with the public, but also behind the scenes. The charity is about to appoint its first chief information officer, who will report straight to Adamson. "Technology is one way that we can revolutionise how we serve people and organise some of our back-office functions," he says. "We need technology at the top table in order to be able to do that."

Despite its well-known name, Adamson thinks the BRC brand needs clarifying. The charity is associated largely with humanitarian work abroad, and Adamson says not enough people are aware of its wider work, such as first-aid training, supporting older people to live independently and helping to tackle food poverty here in the UK.

"We want to be better known for all aspects of what we do," he says. "It's important for our influence on policy-makers, for funding and for the recruitment of volunteers. We want to get over that unique sense of our identity and that we're not an NGO in the classic sense."

The British Red Cross has a mixture of funding that would be the envy of most charities. Of its £228m income in 2013, almost £106m came from donations, £28m from its shops and the rest from a combination of grants, legacies and contract income. But the amount it spent on generating those funds was more than £70m, which included more than £46m on voluntary income and £24m on retail operations. Adamson says he's happy overall with the amount that the charity spends on income generation, but he says it needs to get a better deal for some aspects of its work.

"When we look at our returns, there are some areas where we could recover more of the costs," he says. "In our ambulance support work, for example, we have to get much better at charging appropriately to our partners to make sure we recover those costs."

Criticism about pay

In 2013, the BRC was targeted in a national newspaper attack on senior executive pay in the charity sector. Adamson's predecessor earned about £193,000 in 2013 and was singled out for criticism. Adamson, who earns £170,000 a year, says the criticism led the charity to consider how it sets pay and to decide to follow the recommendations of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' inquiry into executive pay: these include publishing the names, job titles and salaries of the highest-paid staff and making the information available within two clicks of the website's home page.

"We're committed to implementing the recommendations of the NCVO review," says Adamson. "We're in the process of determining how we publish levels of senior salaries in our next annual accounts. We want to do it in a way that's open and honest, but also shows that the scale and responsibilities of some of the directors are very significant."

He believes that charities of all sizes need to take seriously issues such as openness, transparency and maintaining public trust in the sector. "The indicators of trust are still high, but on a downward trend – that affects all of us," he says. "Large charities are particularly exposed. We are conscious of the need for the sector as whole to get its story out about the difference that charities make."

Since Adamson was appointed, he has given BRC staff more opportunities to put forward ideas and raise concerns. "I want to create a sense that we are in this together and that it's a partnership," he says. "We don't have a monopoly of wisdom in the centre. I need to hear from people about what the opportunities are and what we're doing that's not quite right."

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