Third Sector Excellence Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award

Geraldine Peacock - former chair of the Charity Commission and former chief executive of the National Autistic Society and Guide Dogs - is the 2008 winner of the Luke Fitzherbert Lifetime Achievement Award.

Geraldine Peacock
Geraldine Peacock

Criteria:
For an individual who has shown sustained committment to charities during his or her career and succeeded in advancing the interests of the sector as a whole

Judging panel:
Third Sector editorial staff

Winner: Geraldine Peacock
When former Home Secretary David Blunkett appointed Geraldine Peacock chair of the Charity Commission in 2004, it had the reputation of being a dusty and unglamorous institution inhabited mainly by civil servants and lawyers.

She had been a charity commissioner since the previous year, so she already knew some of the ropes. But putting her in charge was a bit like throwing open all the windows on a particularly breezy day.

"I want the Charity Commission to reflect the culture of the sector, not the culture of government," she told Third Sector at the time. "It has a wealth of knowledge and lot of energetic and lively staff. It's time for people like Andrew and me to put our heads above the parapet and start telling its story."

She was referring to Andrew Hind, who was appointed chief executive at the same time, and who was, like her, steeped in the voluntary sector. And put their heads above the parapet they did. Within a year, they had a new communications policy, a new logo and image, and a new strategic plan to make the commission a modern, proactive regulator - doing things with, rather than to, people, as Geraldine put it.

Her stock-in-trade was to think laterally and creatively, freeing the commission of some of its traditional restrictions and occasionally upsetting people who thought she was over-extending its remit. And then, after 18 months, she was gone: she had become engaged to Bob, her childhood sweetheart, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to combine the job with travelling back and forth to his home in Canada.

Having changed some of the ground rules at the commission, she thought it best to hand the baton to someone else who could implement the new charities legislation due later in 2006. "It's a Sidney Carton-like decision," she said. "A far, far better thing."

Another factor was that she was having to live with early onset Parkinson's Disease, which had been diagnosed in 2002, prompting her to leave her full-time job as chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and work part-time as a commissioner.

As she herself has pointed out, however, the silver lining of the diagnosis was that it led indirectly to the commission appointment and a wider contribution to the sector that currently consists of a range of academic work and participation in the campaign to set up a new social investment bank in Britain.

Her achievements as a chief executive, which won her Third Sector's Britain's Most Admired Charity Chief Executive award in 2003, began in 1989, when she became leader of the National Autistic Society.

While she was there the membership tripled, a new strategy and mission were developed, and its annual income grew from £4m to £29m. The Princess Royal became a patron. When she joined Guide Dogs in 1998, it was emerging from troubled times, including some uncomfortable scrutiny by the Charity Commission of its high level of reserves and relatively small number of clients.Her task was to define a new strategic direction, tackle a growing revenue deficit, restore staff morale and reverse a decline in public confidence. By the time she left, Guide Dogs was thriving again - not least because of a range of commercial ventures of a kind she has since encouraged other charities to follow. "Sweat your assets" has been one of her mantras.

Geraldine and Bob are now settled in a house on the cathedral green in Wells, from where she continues to carry out a variety of practical and academic roles for the sector.

"I don't think there's anyone quite like Geraldine," said Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, recently. "When you look at the range and the intensity of what she's done, it's hard to think of a better candidate for this award."

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