Interview: Eric Appleby

The former chief executive of Alcohol Concern talks to Andy Hillier about his return to the charity after it lost a quarter of its income

Eric Appleby
Eric Appleby

There's a saying in business that you should never go back, but Eric Appleby has chosen to ignore that advice. He was the full-time chief executive of Alcohol Concern between 1990 and 2004, but returned to head the charity, albeit on a part-time interim basis, last October.

His return follows a difficult period for the charity, which campaigns and formulates policy on behalf of the alcohol treatment sector. Between 2010 and 2011 it lost £400,000 of its income - about a quarter - largely because of cuts in Department of Health grants. As a result, trustees decided last year to cut 12 of the 23 jobs at the charity, including the full-time post of chief executive, and bring back Appleby, now a freelance consultant, for two days a week.

"The charity lost £400,000 of grants and had to change its business model," says Appleby. "The board decided it wanted a different tack and I was asked if I would go back."

Narrowed focus

Alcohol policy covers about a dozen government departments, ranging from the Department of Health to the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills, and in the past Alcohol Concern has tried to influence policy across all these areas. But Appleby says that cuts have led the charity to focus on three main campaigns: addressing alcohol use in deprived communities; tackling the binge-drinking culture among young people; and encouraging middle-class professionals to drink less.

Finances, however, remain tight. The charity's projected income for 2012 is about £850,000 - less than half of its 2010 income - restricting the money it can spend. It therefore intends to reach its target audience through initiatives such as the January Detox, a social media campaign that will encourage the public to reduce the amount they drink after Christmas.

"One of the big differences of coming back to the charity after almost eight years is the rise of social and digital media and how you do your business," says Appleby. "This campaign will be conducted entirely through digital and online methods."

Improving finances

A plan has already been put in place to improve the charity's finances, says Appleby. At the end of 2011, its offices in Aldgate East, east London, were sold for several hundred thousand pounds and staff were relocated to rented offices in nearby Old Street to help reduce its overheads and replenish its reserves. It is also trying to build up its consultancy and training work, which includes advising companies on how to encourage employees to drink responsibly and working with local authorities to assess whether they have sufficient alcohol services. A new director of fundraising and campaigns was appointed in January and will have the task of generating money from foundations and trusts.

So does Appleby miss the days of government grants? "It's a cliche, but in a way it is liberating not to have grants," he says. "Now we have to think more laterally and not just ask how can we deliver more and better of the same."

But he admits that returning to a previous role brings its challenges: "The words that must never pass my lips are 'we tried that and it didn't work'. You can't be Mr Been There and Done That. The great thing about working for Alcohol Concern is that we are doing new things."

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