Kate Mavor: 'We must think more like a charity'

Chief executive, Kate Mavor has been charged with taking the former quango to fully self-sufficient charity status by 2023. Andy Hillier finds her unfazed by the prospect

Kate Mavor
Kate Mavor

You can almost hear a clock ticking when you talk to Kate Mavor. Over the next eight years, the chief executive of English Heritage has the task of turning the former quango into a self-sufficient charity entirely free of government funding.

The clock was started in April 2015 when English Heritage was formally split in two by the coalition government. The English Heritage Trust, a registered charity, took the name along with the responsibility for managing about 400 historic landmarks, which include such world-famous places as Stonehenge and Dover Castle. Historic England remained a public body and was given the remaining aspects of the former quango's work, including the listing of historic buildings and ensuring that owners of such properties do not make changes that infringe the planning and conservation rules.

At the time of the split, the government awarded English Heritage a one-off payment of £80m, to be spent mainly on urgent conservation work and improving visitor facilities. It will also receive further government subsidies of about £90m between now and 2023. After that, however, its government funding will dry up.

Mavor, who became chief executive a month after the split last year, says she isn't fazed by the prospect of English Heritage having to become self-funding by the appointed time. "The numbers have been worked through," she says. "The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has agreed that it is do-able. If you speak to anyone in the organisation about what numbers we need to be achieving, they know them, because a lot of thought went into producing them."

The numbers show that the charity will need to grow its income from £97.8m a year in 2016 to more than £122m a year by 2023 to hit its targets. This will mean increasing its admissions income from £23.7m a year to £30.7m a year and raising its membership income from £26.8m a year to £42.6m a year. Income from fundraising will need to increase from about £3.2m a year to £8.9m a year. Mavor will also have to keep a tight rein on the costs, which won't necessarily be easy, given the age and condition of some of its historic sites.

"We have experienced an increase in visitor numbers and we have seen an increase in admissions," she says. "We have to get better at having the things in our shops that people want to buy. The big unknown for us is fundraising, because that takes a while to build up."

Mavor hopes that build-up will be achieved in part by reaching out to wealthy individuals. She points out that "in every City banker, there's someone who went round one of our abbeys when they were younger. We have to find them and remind them of that experience."

Trusts and foundations

Despite the fiercely competitive environment for grants, Mavor also hopes that trusts and foundations will become another valuable source of income. She has had encouraging discussions with heritage funders, she says: "The great thing about trusts and foundations is that their raison d'etre is to give out money. I'm coming across lots of history graduates who sit on these boards and who are passionate about history. But it's for us to understand what they're interested in. Education is a big part of the work of trusts and foundations, and education is one of our core charitable purposes."

The first year of the transition from quango to charity has gone well, says Mavor. Membership has risen to 880,000, which is ahead of predications, and she is confident that it will reach a million members in the next three years.

She joined the charity after six years as chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland, and says she was pleasantly surprised by the level of commercial knowledge in the organisation. "People really understood the financial side, which was refreshing," she says. "They knew their metrics and it was quite businesslike."

The main internal challenge has been to encourage the organisation to think like a charity, she says: "A charity needs to be very externally focused. It's not only about offering a friendly welcome, but also about recognising that we're doing this for the public. We want the locals coming in and using our sites - that's the sort of organisation we want to be." One of her priorities, she adds, will be to offer more training to help staff engage with the public and attract volunteers.

Before English Heritage was split, there was some concern about what it could mean in the long term for staff. The charity employs 1,900 people, and Mavor says it is in the process of developing a new strategy for its staffing needs, but does not currently envisage significant job losses "I would like to expand, but you need to have the money first," she says. "It will be a question of emphasis; some people will be asked to put an emphasis on something different."

'A marketer at heart'

Mavor was born in London but grew up in Glasgow before returning south to study languages at Oxford University. After graduating, she embarked on a career in book publishing in London, but eventually found it unfulfilling and left to become marketing director for an English language training school. She remains "unashamedly a marketer at heart", she says.

She later set up her own market research company before becoming the chief executive of Language Line, a UK-based interpreting service. Then she left London in 2005 to return to Scotland so her two sons could "grow up knowing what the outdoors looked like". Soon after the move, she landed the chief executive job at Project Scotland, a Scottish government-funded youth volunteering organisation based loosely on the AmeriCorps programme.

"It was a real marketing challenge," she says. "We had cinema ads and hoardings. We had a funky brand so that young people were attracted to it. The whole thing was a fantastic idea." But a change of Scottish government in 2007 brought the idea crashing down after the new First Minister chose to cut most of its funding. "All our eggs were in one basket and we had to scale right back," she says, adding that it taught her about the perils of relying on government funding.

In 2009, she moved to the National Trust for Scotland, where she remained until the English Heritage job became available last year. She won't say whether she faced any internal opposition from the National Trust about taking the role - the National Trust is the main rival to English Heritage - but she concedes that the timing of her move was unfortunate. She says: "The chair of the National Trust for Scotland was about to leave. We agreed that it wouldn't be good to leave at the same time." In the event, they both left last spring.

Mavor says she was attracted to the English Heritage role by the challenge of changing a public body into a charity. "Having chopped and changed during my entire career, it was also quite nice to stay in the same sector," she says.

The presence of the National Trust looms large over English Heritage. The trust has an income of almost £500m and more than four million members; Mavor says that about 70 per cent of English Heritage members are also members of the trust. She emphasises, diplomatically, that she hopes a lot more people will join both the National Trust and English Heritage in the future.

But despite the fact that the trust is much larger, Mavor says she is not afraid to compete with it. "If you're a business person, you live in a competitive environment," she says. "If someone else is offering a similar product, it's up to you to make the benefits of your product better than the other person's - then they'll attempt to counter it and you'll each make something better."

As an experienced marketer, she says she believes that making the charity self-sufficient within eight years depends on understanding and responding to its membership: "We have to become more of a customer-centric organisation. Right at the beginning, we have to speak to the membership about what we want to do and get feedback and ideas from them. What we don't want to do is think that we always know what is best."

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