Insider, outsider?

Do you have to be a career charity worker to get the sector's best jobs? Macmillan's Ciaran Devane and Leukaemia Research Trust's Cathy Gilman do not think so. We interview them about their experiences

Gilman (left) and Devane
Gilman (left) and Devane

CIARAN DEVANE - Macmillan Cancer Support

As far as Ciaran Devane is concerned, the skills needed to be the chief executive of a large charity are similar to those required to run a multi-national private sector company.

"I never bought in to the idea that there's a huge difference between third, public and private sector organisations," says the chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support. "Many of the management challenges are the same."

And well he might know. Devane joined Macmillan in May 2007, after a career spent mainly in the private sector, as an engineer and manager at chemical giant ICI, and several subsequent years in management consultancy. "ICI was my foundation job; it was the job I learned a lot in," he says. "I was never really an engineer in the 'techie' sense. The jobs I had were the interface between the engineering community and the commercial community, or between the manufacturing community and the customers. The company invested a lot in developing the staff, and I benefited from that."

Devane's move into management consultancy also helped develop his managerial expertise. "The big thing in terms of preparation for the Macmillan job was the type of consulting that I was doing," he says. "It wasn't locking the door of the room, doing lots of data crunching then coming up with a report.

"It was very much spending up to three years in an organisation, really working with the management and the directors to align it behind what they were trying to achieve."

But his immediate route to the cancer charity was an unhappy one. Devane made a career change after his wife died from the disease in 2003. He spent 18 months as chair of Pavilion Housing Association in Aldershot before completing a masters degree in international policy in Washington DC.

He suggests that those outside the voluntary sector considering a move across would benefit from having some similar work experience to bridge the gap.

"Pavilion was helpful in the sense of being in the voluntary sector and understanding what transparency and public scrutiny really mean," he says. "It was good to have hands-on experience of that."

Devane is unsure if it matters whether or not a charity chief executive has experience of the sector. "It's about having the right person for the job for the right organisation at the right time in its evolution," he says.

Ultimately it is the person's skills rather than their experience that count the most, he says. "I don't think I ever looked on Macmillan as something that belonged to a different club or a different sector. The match is always a complex one so, absolutely, somebody from within an organisation can be the perfect person - equally, somebody who comes from outside can be. When one is looking for a good job, there has to be the competency match and the skills have to align. There also has to be something about why you are right for that organisation and it is right for you."

CATHY GILMAN - Leukaemia Research Trust

In career terms, Cathy Gilman, who has been chief executive of the Leukaemia Research Trust since January 2007, combines the best of both worlds. She started off working in personnel at Marks & Spencer before becoming a buyer for department store Fenwick. She regards both experiences as enormously helpful in her current role.

But she also already had first-hand experience of the Leukaemia Research Trust. She had proved her unwavering commitment to the cause by working her way up through the ranks after starting as a volunteer seven years ago. It was then that a family tragedy changed the course of her career for ever.

"My cousin, Rob, who was just five years old at the time, was diagnosed with leukaemia," she recalls. "Seeing his suffering made me realise that I needed to do something more worthwhile. I gave up my job, called Leukaemia Research and offered to volunteer for them three days a week."

Gilman was put in charge of handling donations, but was soon promoted to the new post of corporate fundraiser and eventually became director of fundraising. "I'm not sure I would have stayed for so long if I hadn't been given the opportunity to develop my career here," she admits.

When Gilman decided to apply for the position of chief executive, she had to meet the chair of the charity's scientific panel before being interviewed by a panel of four, including the departing chief executive and vice-chair of trustees.

"You could say that having already worked there gave me an advantage," she says. "You minimise risk by taking on someone who you already know and has already delivered results. The panel has also seen my commitment and knew I would do everything I could to try to make sure that no family had to go through what mine did."

Gilman believes that commitment to the cause provides a real advantage. "I can communicate passionately about our work and inspire people, including my staff, because I know what our beneficiaries are going through," she says. "Someone who was a charity career person, moving from job to job and cause to cause, would be less convincing."

Gilman feels that someone with no experience of the sector is liable to struggle at first. "If you are used to simply giving orders, you might find it tricky managing staff of a charity - especially one that includes volunteers," she says. "The limited resources can be a shock, too."

Gilman advises those starting out in the sector to keep open minds and ensure they have something different to add to their CVs. "I see a lot of CVs from graduates that are very similar; the results are good but there's nothing that stands out," she says. "That said, we recently promoted someone who started out as a volunteer and got a bar job in the evenings to enable him to do that. I thought that was impressive. I would also say that you shouldn't decide on your career path too early. Keep your mind open to new opportunities."

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