Interview: Baroness Delyth Morgan of Drefelin, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now

The head of the newly merged cancer charity tells Tim Smedley that her organisation will be a louder voice for a very personal cause

Delyth Morgan
Delyth Morgan

It comes as no surprise to see that the colour of Breast Cancer Now – forged by the merger of Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Breast Cancer Campaign – is pink. Not princess pink; more of a demure salmon-mixed-with-rose kind of pink. Baroness Delyth Morgan of Drefelin, a crossbench peer and the charity's chief executive, is also in pink – although not the branded, running-top variety.

"We thought a lot about the colour and decided that people associate pink with breast cancer," she says. "If you are a feminist, the issue is not whether you use pink but what you do with it." Men are nowadays just as likely as women to own pink shirts and ties, she says: "For some reason people feel they can be quite rude to breast cancer charities and call us flamingos. I'd love to know why: maybe it's because there are so many of us. But what we're doing is bringing two charities together to create a stronger voice and raise more money to do more research and save lives. And anyone who's got a problem with using pink..." She trails off, contemplating wordlessly what they can do with themselves.

Pink it is, then. And key fundraising initiatives from the merged charities, such as Wear it Pink, Fashion Targets Breast Cancer and the Pink Ribbon Ball, remain too.

Morgan is in the unusual position of having previously led both charities. She has been chief executive of Campaign since 2011 (the smaller of the two, with 86 staff and an income of £12m, compared with Breakthrough's 126 staff and £16.5m income); and she was chief executive of Breakthrough from 1995 to 2005. In that earlier period, she played a significant role in raising the profile of breast cancer charities.

Having worked for the campaigner Sheila McKechnie at Shelter, Morgan felt she had the perfect training to become a chief executive even though she was only 33. Given her scientific education, a science research charity also ticked a box.

Breakthrough had only eight employees at the time, and breast cancer barely registered on the national consciousness. "It was a taboo subject," she says. "We were told we couldn't talk about breasts and death." Things began to change, thanks to the introduction of national breast cancer screening, and to Breakthrough's relentless campaigning. Morgan felt the sector needed a shake-up – she describes the cancer community at the time as run by a lot of very senior, experienced, elderly gents to whom the arrival of new charities run by shouty young girls dressed in breast-cancer T-shirts must have felt like the arrival of punk rock.

Breakthrough was not primarily a campaign organisation at that time, she says: "The whole purpose when I went there was to raise the money for a breast cancer research centre." This opened in 1999, and research units were subsequently added to the universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, King's College (London) and Manchester. In 2002 the Breakthrough Generation Study was also launched to survey women aged 18 and over about factors that could increase the risk of developing breast cancer, such as contraception, family history, diet and alcohol intake. Ten years later, 113,000 women were taking part in the survey, its findings having helped to discover 49 new genetic links to breast cancer.

Working peer

When politics came calling in 2004 (literally: Prime Minister Tony Blair's political secretary phoned to invite her to become a working peer in the House of Lords), it felt like a natural move. Morgan was a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter – her grandmother was involved in setting up the Labour Party in Wales. Initially, her roles – such as vice-chair of the all-party groups on breast cancer and on cancer – were linked to her experience; but later, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, she worked on pensions reform and the Climate Change Act, served as a junior minister in two departments and was the party whip in the Lords.

One gets the sense that she enjoyed politics but never revelled in it. She says she is proud to have had a hand in bringing in pensions auto-enrolment, from which her daughter's generation, now entering the workforce, will benefit. But the personal connection was not the same. When her sister Adrianne was diagnosed with primary breast cancer, she felt a pull back to the charity sector. She was told by a headhunter that Pamela Goldberg, chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, was retiring; the decision to go for that role seemed obvious. Morgan got the job in 2011; shortly afterwards, her sister was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, for which there is no known cure.

Did she consider beforehand whether the cause might be too personal and the role all-consuming? "Yes, I thought about that," she says. "But I realised that having the right motivations will help you to deal with the more difficult times. A lot of people who work here, as well as supporters and fundraisers, have lost family members."

So Morgan resigned the Labour whip and became a crossbench peer. "If you lead a charity, then you have to be independent politically," she says. "The charity's reputation is everything."

Morgan says that when she joined Breast Cancer Campaign she was not planning to merge it with Breakthrough; but she admits she considered the idea before she started. "One thing that the charity sector can do better than anyone else is collaboration," she says. "Because the results we want to achieve are not measured only in profit, the outcomes that we look for can be shared." Leaders in the sector have a duty to look for the potential for joining together, she says, though she won't be drawn on whether 52 UK charities with "breast cancer" in the name is still too many.

She also swerves round the question of whether she personally instigated the merger, preferring to say "it was led by the trustees – ultimately it's their charity and we work for them". It was announced in November 2014, with former Royal Voluntary Service chief executive Lynne Berry as its new chair. The board and chief executive selection process followed.

'Open process'

As a former head of both charities, Morgan must have fancied her chances, but she insists she didn't take anything for granted. "It was an open process," she says. "I don't know how many chief executives applied, but I imagine there were a lot. I experienced the same kind of uncertainty that everyone else did". As it was, Morgan's appointment was announced in March (outgoing Breakthrough head Chris Askew magnanimously tweeted his congratulations). Of the 15 trustees, eight remain from the Breakthrough board and six from Campaign. Other role duplications are yet to be ironed out, although Morgan says – perhaps ominously for the charity's 200-plus staff – that "one of the really important things about merging is that we can be more efficient".

One area where the new charity cannot afford to lose numbers is among its donors and supporters. "We did a lot of testing and spoke to a lot of people, including all the key donors, companies and supporters," says Morgan. "I can't think of anyone who said we shouldn't merge. If you explain that we can reach our goals more quickly by putting the two research programmes together, it is a no-brainer."

Further down the line, Berry, as chair, has committed to publishing a full evaluation of the merger. "We don't think for a minute that we'll have done everything right," says Morgan. "There will be lessons that we would want to share, but it will take a little while to know what these are."

'A more visible and vocal presence'

The process of choosing the name and branding for the new charity was carried out in consultation with groups of supporters. The name that was chosen seemed to stress the urgency of thousands of women dying from breast cancer; the heart in the logo, Morgan says, conveys "why people support us – because they care about people".

The charity will remain research-oriented – both charities previously devoted about two-thirds of their charitable expenditure to research – but Breast Cancer Now also aims to be a more visible and vocal presence. Morgan says: "We won't realise the benefits of research if we don't have an NHS that is receptive to change and innovation, where women can have access to the modern drugs that come about because of research. One has to be done with the other.

"We will certainly be a lot louder. There's a lot to say and do. The Cancer Drugs Fund comes to an end in March 2016 and there's no obvious replacement. We've got to be vigilant or we'll end up back in the days when women were campaigning outside Downing Street demanding access to Herceptin."

But this does not necessarily mean an increase in Breast Cancer Now's policy and influencing expenditure, says Morgan: "It doesn't cost very much to say something, but if it's highly controversial it will be heard very widely." Meanwhile, the combined research portfolios remain much the same, continuing to fund the research centres, the charity's tissue bank and hundreds of PhDs and fellowships in more than 20 universities and hospitals.

Any cuts to higher education would hit the cause hard, she says: "Almost every penny we put into the university sector is matched by the government through the Charity Support Fund. I'm very worried about what will happen to funding for the university sector; it could result in a big increase in our research costs." Similar reciprocal arrangements with the NHS on the tissue bank, partly staffed by jobbing NHS pathologists and technicians, could be threatened, she says: "There is a worry for us is that pathology services are coming under more and more pressure".

There is also a fight against what Morgan perceives is growing complacency towards breast cancer. In 1995 it was taboo; by 2015 the more dangerous belief is that the problem has been solved. Morgan has blogged about "tackling the unfounded idea that cancer and breast cancer have had enough attention", and about a "slow-growing complacency around breast cancer". She also criticised the charity Pancreatic Cancer Action for running a campaign advert with the slogan "I wish I had breast cancer".

But there have been advances, she says: "When I first started at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, 15,000 women died of breast cancer every year; now the figure is down to 12,000. But having saved 3,000 lives a year since then isn't enough – we've got a lot more to do.

"My sister describes it as the Sword of Damocles hanging over her. She doesn't know when her secondary breast cancer is going to take her life, but she knows it will."

Breast cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK; this year, more than 50,000 women will be told they have the disease. "So no, it's not done", says Morgan. "For example, no one from the breast cancer charities is on the Cancer Taskforce looking at the new cancer strategy. That says it all."

A new charity, then, repositioned for a new fight. And it will be resolutely, unrepentantly, proudly pink.

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