Interview: Hilary Pannack

The founder and chief executive of Straight Talking Peer Education says staff development is crucial

Hilary Pannack
Hilary Pannack

This month sees the 15th anniversary of the charity Straight Talking Peer Education, which was set up in response to high rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK and works to bring teenage parents back into education and employment.

The charity employs teenage parents to go into schools as 'peer educators' and deliver a hard-hitting programme about the realities of having a baby. Its revenue increased by a third last year, from £233,000 in 2011 to £325,000 in 2012.

What messages does its founder and chief executive, Hilary Pannack, have for other small campaigning charities? Her recommendations are mainly about growing a campaigning organisation from the ground up, using peer educators effectively and developing staff while keeping an eye on costs.

Pannack places a strong emphasis on people development and realised the charity could help its peer educators with their careers. Peer educators can move up to become local scheme coordinators and then part of the management team.

"After that, we hope they have developed enough skills and expertise on their CVs that they are able to move on," she says. "It also gives people below them in the structure a chance to move into their roles once they become vacant."

Meanwhile, the charity is very careful about hiring more people and keeps a tight rein on its finances.

"If we find a gap in our service, we fundraise specifically to fill that role and we hire someone only once we have the money," says Pannack.

But she adds that hiring new staff is not always the answer. "Get consultants in and use them when they are needed," she says. "If someone knows something that you don't, use them on an ad-hoc basis. And if you are a campaigning organisation, get a campaigner in to help you."

Employing a financial officer and a business development manager was vital for creating an infrastructure at the charity, she says: "I have little understanding of numbers - my strength is to gather experts around me where I lack the skills, and I think it is important for chief executives to remember to do that.

"We muddled through with our finances for a long time before hiring someone and our financial presentation has improved a great deal, enabling us to receive more funding."

The charity's next recruitment move will be to hire an education and employment manager who will help to develop the peer educators.

"Some people are very cosy and we need to give them more ambition because we need a bigger turnover of peer educators," says Pannack.

She says she is also aware of the dangers of 'founder syndrome'. "I know I will have to move on from this charity, even though it's my baby," she says. "I'm getting to that point, but I'm not quite at the dribbling stage yet. At least I'm saving the charity some money by using my senior Oyster card."

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