Charmaine Griffiths interview: From heartbreak to steering the British Heart Foundation through a crisis

The chief executive of the medical research charity talks to Rebecca Cooney about a tumultuous first year in the role

Charmaine Griffiths
Charmaine Griffiths

A year ago last week, Charmaine Griffiths became chief executive of the British Heart Foundation.

Fittingly, she says the decision to return to the organisation where she had spent 12 years earlier in her career was driven by both “head and heart”.

“Logically, it’s an organisation at the cutting edge of cardiovascular research, with huge ambition, making a huge impact on people’s lives every day.”

But, she says, it’s also “deeply personal” – both of her grandfathers died from cardiovascular disease.

“Having felt the heartbreak that caused my family, that was really important to me when I first came to the BHF in 2003, and again when I applied to lead the organisation last year,” she says.

“There’s something magical about the BHF, and the way people work here to make a difference in fighting a condition that affects so many people and that one in four of us will still die from. It’s really urgent and personal for me as well as really intellectually stimulating.”

Griffiths first joined the BHF in 2003 as a media manager. She left in 2016, having worked her way up to executive director of strategy and performance, to join the Institute of Cancer Research as a chief operating officer.

Like many new chief executives in the past year, it hasn’t been the start Griffiths planned for.

The BHF turns 60 this year, and Griffiths makes no bones about the fact that the pandemic is the biggest challenge it has faced in its history.

Two days before the first lockdown, and just four weeks into the role, Griffiths sat down with the senior leadership team to draw up a list of priorities for the organisation during the crisis.

“Our immediate priority is being there for people who need us most, those with heart and circulatory disease, of which there are 7.6m in the UK,” she says.

“We also need to protect our lifesaving work, notably our research core – we have £447m-worth of projects and fund amazing scientists and projects across the four nations, so we knew very quickly we’d have to take action to protect that.

“And lastly, we need to support our people as we go through this challenge and adapt to different ways of working. They have been our guiding light and are still as relevant today as they were back in March last year.”

Like many charities, the BHF faced a rise in demand as a result of the pandemic.

“Very early on it became clear there was a connection between heart and circulatory disease and Covid-19 – those experiencing heart and circulatory issues are more at risk from it, and sadly at risk of dying,” Griffiths says.

In response, the charity set up a coronavirus hub which, Griffith says, “transformed” the way the BHF gets information out to people, making it quicker and easier.

More than 3.3m people have visited the hub for information.

The charity also set up research projects to look at the connection between Covid-19 and heart and circulatory disease, from examining the biological link between the two to exploring how data science could be used to help Covid-19 patients.

Another challenge was the dawning realisation last year that people weren’t calling 999 for suspected strokes or heart attacks because they were afraid of the prospect of going into hospitals during the pandemic, and that regular services and treatments were also being interrupted by the crisis.

The charity worked alongside the NHS to run a campaign on the importance of calling for an ambulance when necessary, and has called for the estimated extra £900m in investment that services will need to get through the backlog.

But, of course, the rise in demand was accompanied by a fall in income, with fundraising events cancelled and its shops forced to close.

The BHF is the largest charity retailer in the country by some margin, with 750 shops as well as its online operations. Its charity shops brought in £22.9m in profit in the year to 31 March 2019.

Lockdowns and restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus is expected to have a significant impact on the charity’s funds.

“Every time we have to enter a lockdown, we’re losing a significant multi-million pound sum,” Griffith says.

“We’re expecting our net income this year to fall by 50 per cent and, as a consequence, I’m saddened that our investment in new research is going to fall from more than £100m a year to £50m this year.”

She praises the BHF’s retail team, which has adapted the charity’s offering by creating a Freepost service so people can send in their unwanted items. To date this has received more than 12,000 donations, worth half a million pounds.

The team also operated “dark stores”, which acted as drop-off points for donations without opening for customers and expanded the charity’s already strong eBay presence, which celebrated its millionth item sale last year.

But this fundraising innovation was never going to be enough to mitigate the full impact of the pandemic, and in July the charity announced that up to 300 jobs were at risk.

Eventually, after a combination of vacancies not filled and voluntary redundancies, slightly more than 40 compulsory redundancies were made.

The restructure, while full of “extremely difficult decisions”, has also provided the organisation with an opportunity to rethink how it operates and how it interacts with people, says Griffiths.

Under the new structure, the people handling fundraising, marketing and engagement activities were brought together as a single team, as were the charity’s medical, healthcare and innovation functions.

“We had to resize the organisation but we made strategic choices in that, too, putting people with heart and circulatory disease at the centre of what we do and wrapping the BHF around them,” Griffiths says.

“The new approach looks at how we connect the lifetime journey contact we have with people across all the areas they come into contact with us – whether they’re finding out how to look after their hearts, shopping, fundraising or donating, carrying out research or, sadly, becoming patients.”

When asked about future job cuts, she says: “There are no anticipated current further alterations – in fact, we’re focusing on embedding the structure that we’ve put in place and building new ways of working as the BHF.”

Then, as she does a few times during the interview, she pauses.

“No, let me be clearer than that,” she says. “There are no further redundancies planned at BHF.”

Griffiths’ background in research science seems to have left her with an appreciation for precision. She has a PhD in neuroscience and was a postdoctoral researcher with University College London. She's also a non-executive board member of the Human Tissue Authority.

“I hope that my having been a scientist means I bring insight into what it’s like to be a researcher and what the system needs – an understanding of the core purpose of the BHF, which is research, because we know that long-term research is where discoveries that save lives come from,” she says.

The charity is working alongside others, particularly as a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities, to call for greater government support for charity-funded research, through a Life Sciences Charity Partnership Fund that would ensure the pace of progress in finding treatment for life-threatening conditions isn’t set back by the pandemic.

It’s also calling for a package of measures to support all charities – including a temporary uplift in Gift Aid contributions from 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

Griffiths says she’s been impressed by the level of collaboration in the sector during the crisis.

“There’s something unique about this moment when we’re all experiencing the same kinds of challenges and can learn from each other,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from other organisations in the charity sector through the Richmond Group, Michelle Mitchell at Cancer Research UK or Jeremy Farrar at the Wellcome Trust.”

Personally, she says, one of the biggest challenges has been finding ways to build rapport with her colleagues remotely.

“The technology available here has been fantastic – we’re in a good position because of some of the smart choices that have been made by my predecessor and colleagues, which meant the move to remote working was relatively simple,” she says.

“But we’ve had to find new ways to connect between people, through blogs, peer support, drop-in coffees, pet photos and art competitions – we’ve had to work to create team moments.”

But she says: “I’ve really appreciated the kindnesses people have shown each other. We’ve seen an astonishing spirit within people – the care and support within BHF that people give to each other on a personal level, as well as making sure we’re delivering, has been phenomenal.

“It has been an extraordinary time and we have an extraordinary team and an extraordinary sector. The way in which we have risen to the challenge and got through the year, I couldn’t have asked more of people, our volunteers, our supporters or our researchers.”

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