Interview: Rowena Lewis

The Clore Social Leadership fellow tells Sophie Hudson she believes the sector should do more to nurture its talent and help more women into the top jobs

Rowena Lewis
Rowena Lewis

There are plenty of women working in the voluntary sector, and some of them are in senior roles. But not many of them get to lead the biggest charities, according to Rowena Lewis.

The early results of her research on the subject, which will be published later in the year, show that in the top 100 charities by income the proportion of female chief executives is only 25 per cent.

As well as discrimination, she's also discovered sexual harrassment."Our sector is not purer than pure," she says. "As a sector that champions social justice, we should really be leading the way in terms of representation of women. We should be the sector that can stand proud."

Lewis is one of 14 rising voluntary sector leaders in the inaugural intake of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, an initiative worth £60,000 to participants in grants and training. The research into women and leadership in the sector is part of the second year's work.

Lewis decided to investigate this subject because, as she puts it, "I got to a stage in my career where I realised I had no female role model to look up to".

She applied for the Clore programme after an early career that featured eight years in fundraising, including three as head of fundraising and development at the Fawcett Society, the women's rights charity.

During that time she increased the organisation's income by 22 per cent. "It was common sense," she says. "The best strategies are the simplest ones." She was also its acting director for four months before being accepted for the leadership programme.

Focus on beneficiaries

Lewis says she applied for it because she feels that the sector is very good at focusing its energies and resources on its beneficiaries, but sometimes fails to invest enough in its own workforce and can therefore be weak in nurturing its own talent for leadership roles.

"Our leaders are imported," Lewis says. "They've been brought in from the public and private sectors. I'd like to see more of a balance. I'd like to see it closer to 50 per cent of leaders being imported rather than the current 80 per cent."

It's important for the sector to grow its own leaders, she says, because of its unique, non-profit ethos.

Lewis combines her leadership training with being executive lead for the Philanthropy Review, a sector-led inquiry into giving and philanthropy that is due to report later in the month.

"I heard about this group of leaders with genuine concern for the sector coming together to talk about what we can be doing to encourage more people to give and give more," she says. "That concern was something I shared."

Fundraising challenges

Her concern about giving stems from her early career experience, including her first full-time job as a street fundraiser for the agency Open Air Fundraising. She says she loved the job, but it was probably the most challenging thing she has ever done.

"I was once hit while doing some street fundraising," she says. "People would lash out because there was bad feeling. I would like to see the sector stand up better for face-to-face fundraising - the stories chuggers have to tell are horrific. But chuggers won't tell those stories - they are the unsung heroes of the sector."

Lewis says street fundraising should be credited for the surge in popularity of direct debit giving in recent years. And she believes that it is important for the sector to be driving the normalisation of giving in any way it can.

"We can't rest on our laurels," she says. "If we have fewer people who give, we face a very real risk of giving becoming a minority sport."


2011: Executive lead, Philanthropy Review
2010: Fellow, Clore Social Leadership Programme
2009: Acting director, Fawcett Society
2007: Head of fundraising and development, Fawcett Society
2004: Grants manager, Toynbee Hall
2003: Fundraising officer, Environmental Investigation Agency
2001: Street fundraiser, Open Air Fundraising


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