The Big Hire: Tim Wainwright

The incoming WaterAid chief executive discusses his career ahead of taking up his new role in May

Tim Wainwright
Tim Wainwright

Tim Wainwright never imagined he would become chief executive of the development charity WaterAid, a role he will take up in May, but he says it's not hard to see where the seeds were sown when he looks back.

One of his formative experiences came in the early days of his first role in the sector, as fundraising manager for Oxfam, when he visited a water project in Ethiopia. "I was incredibly moved to see this little boy at a well with a plastic water container carefully washing it and filling it," he says. "Something about it encapsulated the fact that this is an absolute fundamental to which everyone in the world has a right."

Wainwright is currently chief executive of ADD International, a development charity focused on disability rights. In a quirk of fate, that role was once filled by Barbara Frost, the outgoing chief executive of WaterAid, who left five years before Wainwright arrived but has been "a great support", he says.

He began his career at British Airways, but charity work was always at the back of his mind, he says, and in 1996 he made the leap to Oxfam. After working for VSO and Oxfam in various roles in east Asia, he took a sideways step into the public sector in 2008, becoming Equality and Human Rights Commission director for the English regions, but returned to take up the role at ADD because, he says, he missed the development world. His experience in different sectors, different parts of charitable organisations and different parts of the world have made him able to navigate differences in culture, whether organisational or national, he says.

ADD and WaterAid have collaborated several times, and Wainwright says WaterAid was a key ally during what he calls one of the biggest challenges of his career - trying to push the neglected issue of disability up the international development agenda.

"At the beginning of my time at ADD I found it difficult to get any traction with the major development actors," he says. "I was knocking on doors for the first five years, then in my last year suddenly everyone got more interested.

"It's impossible to work out who makes large-scale shifts in policy like that happen, but I am confident my organisation played a role in elevating the issue of disability."

And working so closely with WaterAid has given him an appreciation of what the charity does. "Water sanitation and hygiene are absolute development fundamentals, and without them many other things can't happen," he says. "So I love the ambition in the way it sets out to create change."

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