Low on a high

John Low, chief executive-designate of the Charities Aid Foundation, is preparing for one of the voluntary sector's toughest jobs.

CAF chief executive-designate John Low. Photo: Newscast
CAF chief executive-designate John Low. Photo: Newscast

John Low is an eloquent man, but he found himself struggling for words on a recent visit to elderly relatives in Aberdeen.

They wanted to know about his new job as chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation and what his new employer actually does. He wasn't quite sure what to tell them. "Did I say it was a bank for charities?" he says. "Part of it is that, but it's not the whole story."

His relatives weren't the first to scratch their heads at the mention of CAF. The venerable charity dates back to 1924, provides financial services to charities, promotes tax-efficient giving and conducts voluntary sector research. Yet, for an organisation with 400 staff and responsibility for managing £2bn of charity assets, it is remarkably anonymous.

"I guess there is an identity problem - a brand problem," says Low. "Those who benefit, such as fundraisers and finance managers, know about it, but it's difficult to explain tax-efficient giving to people. The organisation needs a clear strategic position and strong leadership."

CAF may have appreciated its low profile recently. Six directors left in quick succession before former chief executive Stephen Ainger departed in September. So has Low taken leave of his senses to give up the top job at the dynamic RNID and take on what is arguably the sector's biggest challenge?

"The RNID needs to be refreshed, and so do I," Low says, adding that he was apprehensive about joining another big, single-cause charity. "After being closely identified with one charity, it's hard to run another with a specific cause. It's a bit like being a soap star: you align yourself closely with a role."

CAF's broad remit offered a different challenge. "Civil society is more developed in the UK than anywhere else in the world," says Low. "Yet tax-efficient giving is nothing compared with the US. I would love to have a crack at changing that."

But doesn't the high turnover of senior staff at CAF make him nervous? "If I thought it was a poisoned chalice I wouldn't take it on," says Low, who begins his new job on 1 August.

"There is no way CAF is as bust as people say it is. That is a complete misrepresentation. Sure, it's gone through changes, but all organisations do. People leave in clutches. I don't know whether an internal issue triggered it, but, after speaking to senior managers there, I'm confident that it's a good team.

"If it's difficult, then great, I'm up for a challenge. I'm not interested in just cranking the managerial handle. I can give them five, six, seven big years, using all the skills I've acquired."

It won't be easy for him to impose his vision. The Scot inherits a half- finished strategic review instigated by Ainger. Not a problem, he insists. "They've thought through where they want to be and can share that with me," he says. "You can't have a chief executive parachuting in and telling people what to do."

Ainger, a former BP executive, was accused of not understanding the voluntary sector. Low is too canny to comment on that, but does say the trustees wanted "someone who knew the sector, was aware of its needs" and was a "people person".

He says: "Historically, CAF has employed people from the banking and financial sectors. That has enabled it to grow, but the trustees didn't feel the charity had engaged well with the voluntary sector."

Low, a doctor in medical physics, is determined to be the man to reconnect CAF with its charitable roots. The prognosis is that it may take time.

Low CV

2007: Chief executive, the Charities Aid Foundation
2002: Chief executive, RNID
1999: Director of research and technology, RNID
1988: Technical director, Booker-Sortex
1979: Development manager, John Brown Engineering

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