Career Ladder: Gary Forster of Transaid

The chief executive of the international development charity talks about his career so far

Gary Forster
Gary Forster

In the space of five years, Gary Forster rose from being a volunteer at the international development charity Transaid to the role of chief executive.

"Being chief executive was not something which was on my mind when I joined Transaid," he says. "I just worked hard and tried to do my best for the charity and the people it supports."

Transaid provides expertise to developing countries to help them create appropriate transport systems. Forster says he is fortunate that when he became chief executive, the charity was a steady ship so his team could be more focused on impact than preoccupied with making money.

"We provide niche expertise to large projects in nine countries," he says. "There are no financial targets in our current strategy – it’s about sharing tools with as many partners as possible."

Forster had worked as a logistician for the consumer goods firm Proctor & Gamble, but he decided to leave the corporate sector partly to pursue his goal of working in the charity sector. "In my last 18 months at Proctor & Gamble, every holiday day was spent on training courses trying to build my skills and understanding of the sector," he says.

However, his firm had allowed him to take one lunchtime off per week to volunteer for charities in his local area of Dorset. These included the business education charity Young Enterprise, for which he went into schools to talk to pupils about the world of business.

"I wanted to do something more and I had an interest in transport, so I looked into finding a charity with transport links," he says. He contacted Transaid in 2005 and was accepted as a volunteer in the UK.

He quit his job in September 2006 when the charity then offered him three months expenses-paid volunteering in Zambia in southern Africa. This was followed by a 12-month paid contract to return to Zambia to scope potentialTransaid investment in a road safety project, and another posting to a project in Nigeria in 2008. In 2010 Forster came back to the UK to focus on building Transaid’s project portfolio as the charity’s head of programmes.

When Forster first became involved with Transaid in 2006, it had six staff – but that has now grown to 13. Forster had been mentored by the previous chief executive, Chris Saunders, as a possible successor. But when Saunders decided to step down, the board advertised externally for a new head, a move that Forster supported. But it didn’t find a candidate with Forster’s experience and passion and in April 2011 he was promoted from head of programmes to chief executive.

So how has he found the adjustment from volunteer to head? "We had already worked out a handover, which made it so much easier," he says. "Someone else was ready to take over my previous role and I was able to concentrate on my new one."

In some charities, a journey from volunteer to chief executive might seem quite a steep rise. But at Transaid, it’s part of a cultural norm as the charity seeks to help its staff move up the career ladder.

"Apart from a handful of recent mid-level external appointments, almost everybody who works for the charity had been a volunteer," says Forster. "I hope they will remember that I was one too."

But the journey has informed his view of what’s required of a volunteer. "Seven years ago, when I was trying to get volunteering work, I was frustrated because people were saying I had no experience in Africa," he says. "But now I realise that it takes time to manage volunteers – so we don’t take entirely unskilled people."

Since 2010, Forster has also been a trustee of Red R, an international disaster relief charity that trains aid workers and provides skilled professionals to humanitarian programmes.

"It has been instructive to me to see how a much larger charity operates, and I think it has given me useful insights, such as how the board works with the executive," he says.

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