Katie Docherty: ‘Change will come from the top – I give a cast-iron guarantee’

Following a year of recriminations over sexual misconduct allegations at the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, Katie Docherty explains how she plans to turn things around

Katie Docherty

Katie Docherty spent her first two months as chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising “peeling the first couple of layers off the onion” at the organisation she now leads.

The membership body has been engaged in a protracted listening exercise – between October and December last year, it held 12 roundtable discussions with its members, a further meeting with its employees, and heard from a number of externally-organised feedback forums.

Docherty says the roundtables have provided her with “a fantastic opportunity to meet so many members, staff and trustees so quickly and have the opportunity to connect with them – it’s been really good.”

But the sessions have been more than a meet-and-greet for the new chief executive, who must now take on the challenge of leading a cultural reset following a deep-seated sexual misconduct crisis.

A critical year

In March last year, allegations surfaced on social media that in 2019 the CIoF had received reports of sexual assault by one of its fellows at one of its own events, but had failed to act.

The CIoF issued a statement on its website that appeared to reject the idea that any such allegation had been made. But following vociferous criticism, the membership body was quickly forced to apologise for its initial response, acknowledging that “the tone and timing” and lack of clarity had “caused confusion and distress”.

The organisation subsequently launched an investigation, into both its own handling of the issue and the sexual misconduct allegations themselves.

This set the tone for many of the CIoF’s interactions with its members on this issue over the following months. The body has been criticised throughout for the way it handled the investigation and the communications surrounding it – by witnesses, survivors and members and, at one point, in a public disagreement with Tell Jane, the agency it had hired to do the investigation.

Docherty’s predecessor, Peter Lewis, had announced in March 2021 that he would be stepping down after almost 10 years as chief executive – although he said in a statement that he had handed in his notice before the social media allegations were made.

Days after his departure in June, the CIoF announced that the investigation had “found no wrongdoing” by Lewis. However, it later admitted its statement was not clear enough, explaining the investigation had been “unable to find sufficient evidence” of a complaint being made directly to Lewis about a specific incident in 2014, but concluded that a complaint was probably made to someone at the CIoF.

When the investigation ended in August last year, four allegations of sexual harassment against a CIoF fellow, who was not named, were upheld. It also found “clear organisational and governance failings” in “culture and processes” at the organisation.

‘Change must come from the top’

The member roundtable sessions were mooted by the CIoF board in July, after a disastrous AGM that was branded “a masterclass in question avoidance” by attendees. Docherty herself is positive about the meetings, which were pushed back until she took the reins in October, describing “a real diversity of opinion”.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to share their frustrations,” she says. “But they also took the opportunity to tell us all the things they think we’re doing well and all the things that do work for the CIoF.”

Overall, she says, there were “instructive conversations and really deep insight” that will help the institute “develop a bold and ambitious strategy” for the future.

“There’s certainly a lot to be done, but the message coming back from members is that they can see there is new leadership, they can see a commitment to listening and making changes,” she says.

“And listening doesn’t end with the roundtables – it’s going to be a two-way relationship going forward, where we continue to listen to our members and respond to them.”

The results from the roundtables (see ‘What members said…’, below) and external events organised by the fundraising consultant Beth Upton, who was one of the complainants in the harassment allegations, have given the CIoF the “bedrock to make sure the strategy we develop is going to deliver what our members want and need”, says Docherty.

While the longer-term strategy is being developed, the starting point for the institute will focus on three key areas.

“We have to make sure this is an organisation that is supporting fundraisers, first and foremost; that is what we’re there for – to deliver the tools, learning, networks and events they need to support them to grow, develop and flourish in their careers,” she says.

“We also have to champion the profession and build a better understanding of what the importance of fundraising is, especially now, and positively influence policy and public attitudes toward fundraising, defend against negative attacks on it and stand up for fundraisers.”

In addition, she says: “We have to be an absolute frontline leader on equality, diversity and inclusion – as an employer, as an organisation and as a leader across the profession – and that will bring more voices to the table, that will bring greater creativity, not just to the CIoF but the profession as a whole.”

In some ways, Docherty is in a tricky position; the CIoF’s statements throughout the year have been characterised by “heartfelt and sincere apologies” and commitments to “long-term systemic change”, which were then followed by further missteps and recriminations. When Third Sector reached out to fundraisers last July for an analysis piece asking what the body could do to rebuild trust with members, an alarming number responded by simply saying: “It can’t.”

So what can Docherty offer as tangible markers by which her work and that of the CIoF will be assessed?

The responses from the roundtables, she says, will serve as a starting point. “Members have told us what they want, they’ve made it really clear, and they will be able to see whether or not we have lived up to what they’ve asked for.”

Beyond that, she points out that it’s early days. “We’re just at the start of what we’ve heard, and we want members to continue to be involved in shaping that.

“The targets that we develop will be agreed between us and our membership, and when we launch that strategy, I want every part of our constituencies to feel that they own it and have been involved in setting that direction.”

Crucially, where it comes to sexual harassment, while the organisation has laid “all the groundwork to get the right procedures, tools and resources in place”, Docherty is clear that “change has to come from the top”.

“I am absolutely committed to that, and I have a zero tolerance approach to any kind of harassment or inappropriate behaviour,” she says. “That will come from me, from the chair of the board and that will filter down through every single aspect of the organisation.

“I give a cast-iron guarantee that I will do that and I am committed to that.”

Passionate about people

Glasgow-born Docherty has spent the past five years as chief executive of the Scouts in Scotland and before that was head of charity services at Age Scotland.

She began her career in the sector as a fundraiser for the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, and was a member of the CIoF at the time, which she says left her with “absolutely fond memories” and conviction that it is a “really important organisation”.

There’s no getting around the fact that, at this moment in the membership body’s history, the chief executive role comes with a certain amount of baggage. But Docherty says: “The challenge and the ability to make change is definitely part of the attraction.”

“I knew exactly what I was applying for and what the challenges are, but I also truly felt that my experience of being a senior leader in volunteer and membership organisations, and fundraising, mean I am absolutely equipped to take on this challenge.”

The first career aspiration Docherty can remember having was to be a fighter pilot – after watching the film Top Gun – before realising it would involve physics (“I tried physics and I didn’t really care for it”), then a detective, inspired by Cagney & Lacey. But, she adds: “I never seriously pursued either of those career paths.”

Following a degree in political science from the University of Dundee, Docherty took up a role as Scottish officer at the Labour Party in 1996 – just before Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 election.

“It was an exciting time to be there,” she says, but adds that after five years in politics, “I got to a point where I decided it was time to get a proper job.”

“I sat back and thought about what excited me and what did I enjoy. The number one thing was I enjoyed working with people, two was that I enjoyed working on something that meant something to me – that was what I took into looking for new roles,” she remembers.

A role managing the community fundraising team at Anthony Nolan came up, and Docherty realised it fitted the bill perfectly.

The major difference between charities and politics, she says, is that “people like you more if you work for a charity. If you work for a political party there’s always going to be a proportion of people who don’t like what you’re doing – that’s rarer in the third sector.”

But what politics and charities have in common, Docherty says, is that “people are really motivated and passionate about the organisation they work for, they’re really committed to its values.

“That is a very powerful thing that is hard to measure,” she says. “I don’t think it’s transferable to many areas of the private sector, and if you harness that passion and commitment you can do amazing things.”

When it comes to fundraising, the lasting attraction has been the people. “Fundraisers are the best people – they don’t just work hard, they give a piece of their soul to everything they do. They are the engine room of so many charities.”

By the time Docherty had finished a decade of work at Anthony Nolan, she oversaw much of the organisation’s fundraising across the UK but remained based in Scotland, working remotely before it was common or, indeed, easy; she relied on dial-up internet for much of that time.

It’s a setup she plans to maintain in her role at the CIoF, leading the organisation largely from her home in Dunfermline.

There’s a word commonly used in Scotland: “outwith”, which effectively means “outside of”. It crops up frequently during the conversation – leading the CIoF “outwith London” (and, indeed, England), Docherty says, will “bring huge things to the organisation.

“This is a UK-wide organisation with members working across the whole country, so having a leader working remotely says to members that every part of the UK is important, and an important part of the CIoF. It says to the profession that we can work differently, it doesn’t matter where people live any more,” she explains.

“In this online world it’s about what they do and how they connect with each other, so I think it’s a positive thing.”

The idea has received strong support from people both within and outside the organisation, she says.

As her own career demonstrates, working remotely isn’t new – and, of course, the pandemic has increased both demand and capacity for the practice.

“Just now, we’ve got better technological tools – Zoom, Google Meet and Teams, and so forth – which make it easier to do outwith London and to operate from the different regions and nations within the UK,” Docherty says.

And perhaps the introduction of someone outwith the chartered institute – but with experience of the body and its members – is what the organisation needs following its annus horribilis (and, many would argue, the failures in previous years that led to it).

Alongside the outrage over the institute’s handling of the sexual misconduct allegations, more longstanding complaints were dragged to the surface by the discontent among members last year; including concerns about who was listened to within the organisation, how it was structured and the efforts it made to appeal to and represent individual fundraisers.

Docherty argues that her aims of representing and supporting members, being an open and inclusive organisation and being “a standard-bearer for excellence” in the fundraising profession are key to “opening the doors not just to people who used to be members, but those who are not members and could join.”

Her ambition is for “every fundraiser and connected professional to have the opportunity to be part of this organisation”.

Docherty is a trustee of the Scottish charity leaders body Acosvo and, having witnessed the power of “senior leaders being able to connect with each other” through the body and its sister organisation in England, Acevo, says she would like to see more space for that to happen within the CIoF.

The top-down nature of the CIoF’s structure, and its financial model – which depends heavily on one in-person event, the annual convention, held in London – has also been widely criticised.

Docherty acknowledges there may well be a need for change and it’s something she’ll be considering in the coming months.

“Like every single business and charity in the world, we have to be agile,” she says. “The world is changing constantly and we have to be able to adapt, not just in terms of our own business operation but also in terms of the support we offer fundraisers – particularly when there’s a risk that all plans will have to be thrown out because the pandemic has changed course again.

“I don’t think that’s any different for us than it is for any other charity or, frankly, any other business, when we’re facing change on a level that the world hasn’t seen for decades at least.”

Nonetheless, Docherty remains intensely optimistic that these shifts within the CIoF can be made and that the aims she has set out can be fulfilled. This, she says, is due to the members.

“One thing I take away from the roundtables is the complete unity of commitment that members have to what they want, which is a strong, bold and ambitious CIoF that delivers for them,” she says.

“Everybody, no matter what their role is, has that really strong passion for the organisation, and that is such an important foundation to be able to build on. That has given me the confidence that it is absolutely something that we can achieve, as long as we work together with our members.”

And beyond the impact on members, Docherty believes that if the CIoF can deliver for fundraisers, then the effect will extend to every charity in the country.

“If we can support fundraisers to be more successful, they’ll raise more money for their causes and their causes will be able to achieve more and help more people,” she says.

“That’s a big deal, I think.”

What members said…

About 300 members participated in the roundtable discussions, which were accompanied by surveys and independently organised feedback forums

In December the CIoF released a summary of the responses it got from the exercise.

When asked what was “not working” at the CIoF, responses included comments about a “lack of purpose, vision and strategy… Some members feel that the Chartered Institute has lost its way”, that the CIoF “is disconnected from the wants and needs of members, does not have a compelling proposition”, and that it offered “inadequate” support and recognition for volunteers.

Some accused the CIoF of “not listening” to members, poor communications and “a failure to publicly represent the fundraising community consistently well”.

Respondents also described “insufficient leadership” on cultural issues, safeguarding and equity, diversity and inclusion, saying strong leadership was needed from the CIoF to make fundraising safer and more diverse as a sector.

When asked what they felt was working, respondents said the qualifications, resources and guidance offered to members were “valued”, were positive about CIoF events and highlighted the “crucial role” of the volunteer-led regional, national and special interest groups, which were seen as “the face of the organisation”.

In addition, the summary said: “New leadership, and signs that the Chartered Institute is showing a willingness to listen to members and engage in a fresh way, has given hope to many.”

When asked what changes they would like to see in the future, members responded that the body needed to “establish a meaningful, sustainable business model which meets stakeholder needs” and conduct a “wholesale review” of what it currently offers to members.

They also called for the CIoF to provide a safer, more inclusive environment, raise the profile of fundraising as a profession and improve internal and external communications and infrastructure.

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