Interview: Claire Horton, Variety Club

The chief operating officer talks to Tristan Donovan about culture change

There's a distinct pattern to Claire Horton's CV: with uncanny regularity, she seems to switch jobs every six years. Her latest role as the chief operating officer of the Variety Club follows six-year stints at the NSPCC, Cats Protection and, most recently, the University of Warwick's student union. And she once took a six-year break from the sector, too.

She joined the children's charity 18 months ago because she was motivated by the challenge: to put the Variety Club back on the map.

"It's an iconic, 60-year-old national institution, but it is mainly known by the over-40s and for its Sunshine Coaches," she says. "But it does so much more than that. It helps the best part of a million children every year in a whole variety of ways. I wanted to take it to the next level, help it reach a wider audience and widen its ability to help children."

Her first six months were all about consultation, she says. "I sat down and talked to everyone, from the staff and trustees to the volunteers, stakeholders and celebrities, about what they did and what the charity was doing right and wrong."

This led to a three-year plan designed to make the charity's message clearer and improve its fundraising.

The restructuring of the fundraising team has been crucial. It had been almost entirely focused on events, so Horton set it the goal of developing new funding sources such as individual giving and corporate donations.

This has required something of a culture change. "You have to invest up front to raise money through things like individual giving, and you don't always see the returns in the first year," she says. "So there was a nervousness about dipping into reserves during the worst recession ever to invest in new and unproven fundraising methods."

It also meant changing the way staff approached their work. "I want a culture where we always ask how we can improve what we did yesterday," says Horton.

She took a hands-on approach, working with teams to develop and implement new ideas. The approach has resulted in staff suggesting new ideas such as the summer camps it will pilot next year and efforts to bolster its volunteer committees.

The changes have already delivered deals worth £15m over three years with the Co-operative Group, jewellers H Samuel and the Alternative Hotel Group.

"Some of the money is coming in now," Horton says. "That enthuses staff as they see the benefits, which lifts morale, making people happier and more motivated."


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