Interview: Kay Boycott

Charities must base their campaigning on sound evidence, says the new chief executive of Asthma UK, who did marketing in the private sector before moving to her previous job at Shelter

Kay Boycott
Kay Boycott

If Kay Boycott, the new chief executive of Asthma UK, had not forged a career in the charity sector, she might have made a good scientist, so possessed is she with the idea of using evidence to back up her work.

Boycott, who was director of communications, policy and campaigns at the housing charity Shelter before taking up her new role a fortnight ago, developed her approach during 17 years working in the corporate sector: two years as brand manager at Nestle Rowntree, five years with Johnson and Johnson and 10 years as a corporate consultant to a string of big name brands, including Vodafone and John Lewis.

"If you worked in sales and marketing in those days, you were exposed to different disciplines, such as research, forecasting and packaging, so you got a broad skills base," she says.

The move to the charity sector came in two stages. First, she took up a non-executive role at what was then the Hammersmith & Fulham Primary Care Trust in west London. Then, in 2009, she became director of communications, policy and campaigns at Shelter. The corporate world had begun to lose its lustre.

"I found myself talking about entire continents in one breath - I felt I was losing a grip on reality and that I needed to be more grounded," she says.

Boycott took a rigorous approach to restructuring the communications department at Shelter, which was then operating on a deficit. She questioned every aspect of its operations and asked: "What is the 'bang for our buck'?"

There were casualties, including the charity's magazine Roof, which had been running since the 1970s. "It was losing a large amount of money and we could no longer justify the costs," she says. However, Boycott was also willing to spend money, so she hired an economic analyst to develop a 'Shelter data bank' of statistics and trends on housing.

By amassing data, Boycott was on the lookout for evidence to back future campaigns because, she says, "using evidence is in my DNA".

In housing there are many issues to choose from, so picking the right one on which to focus the charity's resources became a science in itself.

"The starting point is evidence of what the greatest problems are and people's current attitudes to them," says Boycott.

This is followed by a focus on the people the charity needs to reach and on what they believe, then deciding what to convince them of. "From that flows the idea of what the messages in a campaign should be," she says.

One part of campaigning involves lobbying government, but lately this has become more contentious, with some politicians believing that charities should keep quiet and stick to serving their beneficiaries.

"Like most people, politicians like to be praised and don't like criticism," says Boycott. "I think the current government believes that charities should not comment on policy and should not campaign. But this is not the view of the public - one of the reasons they give money to charities is so that they can campaign."

There is a disconnect, Boycott says, between those in society who want charities to be professional and others who think they should not be "too professional". So how does a charity get the balance right?

"I think every charity should campaign on behalf of its charitable objects in an evidence-based way, and be very clear about not doing it along party lines," she says. "If a company did something that affected a charity's beneficiaries adversely, would anyone think it was wrong to say something about it?"

Boycott says that after she worked on strategy for Shelter, the step up to the role of chief executive at another charity was a logical one. Her two children are now aged 10 and 12, and she feels the time is right.

"My career has involved a lot of sideways moves to get breadth - I think breadth is what you need to be a chief executive," she says.

But Boycott says she won't apply the same tough campaigning style of Shelter to her new role at Asthma UK. "Housing requires tougher messages to get large campaigns through, but it would be wrong of me to say that this was the 'Kay Boycott' style of campaigning," she says. "I campaign in the way that is most effective to get change where it is needed. In the case of Asthma UK, people think asthma is not a serious disease, but it kills and hospitalises people. Five million people in the UK have the condition and it affects their quality of life.

"We have an evidence-based, project called the National Review of Asthma Deaths so that we can analyse the causes," she says. "Asthma UK is also the lead researcher in a European project analysing the condition."


2013: Chief executive, Asthma UK

2009: Director of communications, policy and campaigns, Shelter

2004: Non-executive director and chair of audit committee, Hammersmith & Fulham Primary Care Trust

1999: Director, Oxford Strategic Marketing

1994: Marketing and innovation roles, Johnson & Johnson

1991: Assistant brand manager, Nestle Rowntree

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