Profile: Dame Mary Marsh

The former NSPCC chief executive has been reinventing herself with a portfolio career. John Plummer hears how she wants to boost leadership in the sector

Dame Mary Marsh
Dame Mary Marsh

Dame Mary Marsh will always be associated with the NSPCC. She led the children's charity for eight years, during which it tripled its annual income to £150m and raised £250m for its Full Stop campaign. But since leaving this voluntary sector super-brand last October, her career has changed course.

Marsh became founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, which aims to develop the next generation of third sector leaders. She has only two staff, compared with 2,500 at the NSPCC, no permanent office and no secure long-term funding - but says it's her perfect job. "I've always been interested in leadership and this is an opportunity for me to share what I've learned," she says.

The Clore programme will provide perhaps the most comprehensive voluntary sector leadership training ever. The course, worth £60,000 per person, includes training sessions, residential weeks, online learning and access to mentors and coaches. Applications for the first 15 fellowships opened last month.

Academic institutions and training organisations, such as the Leadership Trust, Common Purpose and the Whitehall & Industry Group, will deliver the course on behalf of the Clore programme. Funders include the Clore Duffield Foundation, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the RNIB and the Office of the Third Sector.

Why has this kind of investment not happened before? "The voluntary sector has never had the resources to invest in leadership," says Marsh. "The private sector has always had an appreciation of it and the public sector has made a massive investment in it recently. In the third sector it tends to be up to individuals to do it for themselves or get bits of development. It's much more fragmented. We've got better at supporting people once they have become chief executives, but there's quite a big gap for people on the way up."

Marsh's organisation isn't the only voluntary sector leadership body. There is chief executives organisation Acevo, of which she is a member, and, until March, there was the Third Sector Leadership Centre, a joint initiative led by the NCVO with Acevo as its partner.

Marsh says Acevo develops today's leaders whereas her organisation develops tomorrow's. As for the leadership centre, which closed after the NCVO's bid for further funding from the non-departmental body Capacitybuilders was rejected, she says it was unfortunate that it ceased so suddenly. "There was a wealth of understanding and expertise," she says.

Its demise makes the Clore programme more important, and Marsh brings her own considerable understanding and expertise to the task. Born in Merseyside, she studied geography at Nottingham University before working as a teacher for 20 years at three schools. Two of them - St Christopher and Holland Park - were informal schools where pupils addressed staff by their first names and didn't wear uniforms. Marsh says she wasn't a disciplinarian, but adds: "The students said they didn't like being told off by me because I would make them know they had done something wrong."

She was looking for something different when one of her sons showed her an advert for the top job at the NSPCC. What gives her the most satisfaction about her time there? "We were a significant part in the shift in focus on children moving up the agenda," she says. "There is now a greater recognition of their needs and rights." She says she's also proud of the "big, bold steps" taken by the Full Stop campaign.

Some critics, however, said the campaign's goal of a complete end to child cruelty was unrealistic. Marsh's successor, Andrew Flanagan, has described Full Stop as "a tremendous success" but also said: "I don't think it advanced us towards the goal of ending child cruelty in terms of the expectations at the beginning."

Marsh says ending child cruelty was always expected to take a generation. "It's just 10 years so far, and I think attitudes towards child cruelty have changed," she says. "The awareness-raising has been done; the attitude change has happened in large part; the bit left to do is behaviour change."

And what of the Full Stop name? "What else could we say? We were not going to say 'let's end child cruelty by 80 per cent or 50 per cent'. Child cruelty is wrong. It's entirely unacceptable. The only ambition is to say 'we are going to stop it'. It's a long-term ambition, but it's the only one to have."

Stayed for the merger

Marsh says she probably would have left the NSPCC sooner, but she stayed to oversee the merger with ChildLine. "You should never stay in leadership positions too long," she says. "If you do, you have to find ways of refreshing yourself. Seven years or so is quite a long stint; it's good to get a different perspective."

She suggests it's unlikely she will work for another large charity and talks about reaching the portfolio stage of her career. As well as leading the Clore programme, she is interim chair of Skills - Third Sector, the new skills body for charities, and a non-executive director of HSBC Bank. She also serves on the national council of the Learning and Skills Council, which means she is involved in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

"I think that's valuable," she says. "Third sector leadership has to sit in dialogue with other sectors." She names Jane Slowey, chief executive of homelessness organisation the Foyer Federation, and Debbie Scott, chief executive of employment charity Tomorrow's People, as voluntary sector leaders she particularly admires.

Marsh seems more relaxed and open than she was during her time at the NSPCC. She is, she says, "now talking on my own behalf". She adds: "When you are the head of a high-profile organisation, you are speaking for that organisation. I certainly did speak out for the NSPCC, but there is a more open agenda for me now because I can share my interests in all sorts of things."

Her hobbies include swimming and walking. Now in her 60s, she has a granddaughter as well as four grown-up children. "Family is important to me," she says. Her Spanish husband died 10 years ago and she says she has "a real longing to learn Spanish properly".

There probably won't be much time for that in the near future. Marsh says she enjoys being busy and has no plans to retire. But although the Clore programme excites her, she admits it won't be easy to sustain funding. "I'll need to continue fundraising, and it's not been the easiest time to do that, given that I started at the end of October when the economy dived," she says.

But she's optimistic that enough people in the sector realise there is a need for such a programme and will support it. "Developing leaders is not a low-cost thing to do," she says. "But the context in which the sector operates has changed dramatically and we need a different capability."

CV: Teacher to leader

2009: Non-executive director, HSBC Bank
2008: Interim chair, Skills - Third Sector
2008: Founding director, Clore Social Leadership Programme
2005: Appointed to the Learning and Skills Council's national council
2000: Chief executive, NSPCC
1995: Head teacher, Holland Park School, west London
1990: Head teacher, Queens' School, Bushey, Hertfordshire
1980: Deputy head teacher, St Christopher School, Letchworth,

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