Cancer Research UK's Michelle Mitchell: 'We are coming out of this determined, united and fighting'

As the fundraising giant announces huge job cuts and prepares for more, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK tells Rebecca Cooney the charity will not compromise on its mission

Michelle Mitchell
Michelle Mitchell

Cancer Research UK has dominated the rankings of fundraising charities for years – in the year to 31 March 2019, it had an income of £671.9m. 

But being one of the giants of the sector has offered no protection from the impact of the coronavirus crisis. This week the charity announced that it would be losing about 500 roles from its non-trading workforce – almost a quarter – following predictions that its expected income would fall by £300m over the next three years. 

And Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of the charity, tells Third Sector there are likely to be more to come from the charity’s trading arm, although consultations there are yet to happen. 

The charity funds about 50 per cent of all cancer research in the UK, and this is also likely to take a hit, with the charity being forced to reduce its spending on research by £150m over the next four to five years. 

“These cuts are hard, and deeply disappointing,” says Mitchell. “There will be a number of programmes which are extremely high quality and incredibly impactful that we will have to cut because we just don’t have the money.”

This could mean fewer scientists, fewer discoveries, fewer clinical trials, and fewer therapeutic and diagnostic innovations, she says.

But Mitchell says the charity will not compromise on its vision to see cancer survival rates to go up to three in four by 2034. 

“We will be smaller, by about 20 per cent in terms of staff and expenditure, but we will focus on the highest quality work,” she says.

The job cuts announcement was made alongside the unveiling of a three-year strategy that will result in the charity adopting a more flexible, quality-orientated approach to funding research, and Mitchell says it’s important that news of losses is accompanied by a firm vision for the future. 

“Covid has changed the world,” she says. “But over the next three years we want to inspire people to look at the future vision, the change we want to create, and to collaborate with us on our mission.”

But, she says, CRUK can’t do it alone. The charity’s work is entirely funded by donors and trading – but alongside other medical research charities, CRUK is calling on the government to step up.

“The Prime Minister has said several times he is committed to improving cancer survival, and this government sees science innovation as being at the heart of its industrial and economic strategy in a post-Brexit Britain, and values science and innovation,” says Mitchell. 

“And we’re saying to the PM if you believe that, you really need to step in and support all the medical research charities at this time of need.”

Along with other members of the Associations of Medical Research Charities  CRUK is calling for the government to commit to a proposed Life Sciences Charity Partnership Fund, donating one pound for every two pounds medical research charities raise for a two-year period, up to a sum of £650m. 

Medical research charities have “fallen through the cracks” in terms of Covid support funding, Mitchell says – but she’s also clear that “the government can and should do more” to support the wider sector.

When Third Sector profiled Mitchell shortly after she took up the role at CRUK, she emphasised the importance of collaboration within both the charity itself and the sector. As demonstrated by the charity’s campaign with the AMRC, the crisis has not diminished this belief. 

“We are coming out of this determined, united and fighting and working in collaboration with others, so our voice is amplified at this critical time and the voice of the charity sector is amplified too,” she says. 

After all, it’s going to be a difficult summer and autumn for everyone in the sector.

“All charities are going to be severely impacted by Covid to differing degrees, particularly those that have high dependency on retail or events,” she says. 

“But, and when I think of CRUK and other charities, we’ve been through recessions, world wars, major periods of disruption, we will come through this and we will change to get through it; the sector is full of brilliant people who will adapt. 

“Our mission and causes are so strong that we need to look to the future too.”

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