Richard Hawkes: 'The sector can be so much more effective'

The chief executive of the British Asian Trust has held senior roles at some of the UK's largest charities over the past two decades. Andy Hillier talked to him about his career and why he remains frustrated by the charity world

Richard Hawkes
Richard Hawkes

There can't be too many charity offices whose setting rivals that of Richard Hawkes. A few doors down is Clarence House, the official residence of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, and beyond the perimeter gate lies London's Green Park.

Since October 2015, Hawkes has been chief executive of the British Asian Trust, a small but respected charity founded by the prince almost a decade ago to tackle poverty and hardship in South Asia (see "Royal-backed charity ...", page 29). Charles offered the charity rooms within St James's Palace, hence the striking setting.

But in many ways the move to the BAT is something of comedown for Hawkes, a man who has forged a career working in senior management for some of the UK's biggest charities, including a five-year stint as chief executive of the disability charity Scope. "I went from being the chief executive of an organisation with 3,500 people to being the chief executive of an organisation with 12 people," he jokes. "There aren't many people who would regard that as career progression."

It was a joke that indirectly led to Hawkes working in the sector in the first place. During his years as an economics student at the University of Manchester in the 1980s, he decided to stand as a candidate in the university union elections. "I was taking the mickey out of the extreme political activism in the union and won three positions on the student executive," he recalls. He enjoyed student activism so much that he took various paid student union roles, rising to become national secretary of the National Union of Students.

"One of the real turning points for me was when two Kurdish students came to talk to me about the situation in Iraq under Saddam Hussain," he says. "They explained how I could make a difference to them. Until that point, no one had given me any feeling at all that I was able to have a positive impact on other people's lives. I found it intriguing."

A job working at the United Nations' youth and student unit, based in Vienna, followed. It was the early 1990s and communism was falling in Europe. "I had an amazing job going around the UN building relationships with youth and student organisations in the new democracies," he says. "It gave me an incredible insight into how situations change in countries and the role that people and organisations can play in effecting positive change."

An international NGO career

But in 1994 Hawkes decided that he wanted to return to the UK to work for an international NGO. At the time, the deafblind charity Sense was looking for a director to establish an international arm. Hawkes successfully applied for the role. "I was told that they had set aside enough money for a salary for three years, but that was it," he says. "I had three years to work out what the strategy would be, secure the funding and build in our costs. It really focused my attention. It was my first experience of charities needing to be ruthlessly efficient and absolutely focused on what they are trying to achieve."

He stayed at Sense International for 12 years, turning the organisation into a £2m-a-year operation running in 15 countries. As a new organisation, one of the models of working it adopted from the start was local empowerment. "We made only one decision about India," he says. "It was not to make decisions about India from the UK. We had local staff and a local board right from day one. A lot of international NGOs are still going through that decentralisation process."

During his time at Sense International, he also became involved with Bond, the UK membership body for international development charities, going on to chair its board. "This was brilliant for Sense International," he says. "And it put me in a position where I could build up wider relationships and a knowledge of what was and wasn't working. I have always been obsessed with the need for us to get our organisations working as effectively and efficiently as they can."

In 2006, Hawkes left Sense International to become number two at the international volunteering charity VSO, working under Mark Goldring, now chief executive of Oxfam. Four years later, the headhunters came calling: the disability charity Scope was looking for a chief executive. Hawkes applied and got the job despite having worked only for international charities before. "It was a huge change," he says. "Scope worked only in England and Wales. I had the enormous challenge of having to learn about the welfare system, how social care works and the relationships with local authorities."

Scope had been a pioneering organisation since it was formed in the 1950s, but Hawkes says the board felt it had become a "little-old fashioned" and wasn't quite sure if it was there to be a service provider or a campaigner. "I had to reposition the organisation so that it saw itself as a force for social change," he says. This required addressing a few home truths, including questions about its own service standards. "You can't have your policy and communications trying to influence local authorities to provide modern services for disabled people if your services side of the organisation is providing old-fashioned services," says Hawkes. "You have to be true to what you are trying to encourage everyone else to do."

Social finance move

His other major personal achievement during his Scope years was its move into social finance. In 2012, the charity launched a bond on the Luxembourg stock market, raising £2m towards the opening of new charity shops and other income-generating activities. The initiative proved a success and Hawkes has been an exponent of social investment ever since.

"Too many charity sector organisations raise money in such a way that they aren't really focused on the outcomes and what they're trying to achieve," says Hawkes. "They raise money for the things they do, then report back to donors to say they've done all of these training events or appointed all of these staff. Social finance forces the organisation to think more about data, evidence and outcomes."

But his time at Scope came to an abrupt end in the summer of 2015: the charity announced that May that Hawkes would leave the following month after its board had decided to take a different strategic direction. A Third Sector forum poster at the time rather unkindly described it as a "great day" for the charity, saying Hawkes and his chair Alice Maynard were interested only in the "bottom line".

Hawkes, though, says it was a happy parting. "It was really simple," he says. "I was appointed by Alice Maynard. Her term was coming to an end and a new chair came in. We talked about the future of the organisation and it was clear it was going to go in a slightly different direction.

"I think that if a chief executive is going to go, they should just go. It allows an organisation to really think about what it wants to do and how it wants to move forward. If you can come to an amicable agreement, it's best for everyone."

Looking back, he believes it was the right time to leave. "I made a lot of changes," he says. "It needed a new team come in to take the organisation forward."

A three-month career break followed, during which he went on holiday, spent time with his kids and walked his dog - a lot. "It was great," he says. "It really helped me think about what I really wanted to do in the next period of my life."

Hawkes applied for a number of other roles, but ended up withdrawing in the final round of two interview processes because he realised he wasn't right for the roles. "I didn't want to be in an organisation where every minute of every day I was bogged down in meetings, papers and processes," he says. "I wanted to work in something dynamic, fast-moving and creative."

The BAT ticked all of those boxes, he says: "For me, it was the potential of the organisation and the opportunity to work with some amazing people."

But, as a white British male, did he not think twice about leading an Asian charity? "The trust is absolutely an Asian diaspora-led organisation," he says. "The board members are all Asians. The board and our stakeholders represent all the different religions and nationalities of the British Asian community. I would never claim to represent British Asians.

"The organisation said it wanted the best person it could to be the chief executive, someone who could grow the organisation."

An outlier

Hawkes has developed a reputation for being an outlier in the charity sector. The week before this interview, he was firing off remarks on Twitter about the sector's negative reaction to the government's Autumn Statement. In the autumn, he also took pot shots at the number of umbrella and infrastructure bodies in the sector during a speech at the annual conference of the think tank NPC: Hawkes discovered that they total more than 800, a figure he describes as "ridiculous". He adds: "The amount of resource that's going in to just feed the beast is completely unhelpful."

He is particularly incensed by the argument that the sector requires both the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the charity leaders body Acevo. "I don't think we need sector bodies to represent the interests of so many sector groupings or staff roles in the sector," he says. "We need one very strong and very effective body that can represent the interests of the sector and harnesses its power more. Everyone knows that the two main bodies that represent the sector have spent much of the past two or three years squabbling - that doesn't help the wider sector."

Nor does Hawkes have a problem with the media's recent coverage of charities, which has been criticised as unfair and overly negative by some. "The media asks difficult questions and everyone in the sector blames the media," he says. "If we were really confident about everything we did - how we spent our money, how much money we're paying people and how we're fundraising - we'd have nothing to hide. The media is perfectly right to ask these questions."

The sector has become too defensive and has shied away from answering difficult questions, he says. "There's a lot of bad practice in the sector," he argues. "It should be prepared to speak out about bad practice. When organisations are getting things wrong, the sector itself should be clear about how that is letting down everyone else."

But he says he is outspoken only because he believes in the power of charities. "I challenge myself and colleagues in the sector," he says. "The sector can be so much more effective. I don't think we're quite where we need to be. We need to look at the leadership issues within different organisations, the leadership of the sector and a more strategic approach to the sector overall."

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