Newsmaker: Gland master - John Neate, Chief executive, Prostate Cancer Charity

Annie Kelly

John Neate believes that the prostate gland's time has come. And as the chief executive of Prostate Cancer Charity, he's determined that his organisation finds its place in the spotlight as well.

"After years of neglect, people are starting to talk about prostate cancer in a way they've never done before," he says. "The scope to move forward is enormous, and we're determined to be at the forefront of this new movement to make prostate cancer a relevant issue for every man in the UK."

A courteous, charming and well-spoken man, Neate nonetheless has steely opinions about the contribution that the Prostate Cancer Charity has made to this attitudinal shift, and his ambition for his organisation is clear.

"It's obvious from our range of activities that we've managed to generate a level of media, political and public interest in prostate cancer that we've never had before," he says. "And now it's time we took advantage of this."

Prostate cancer is the biggest cause of male cancer deaths in the UK, but it was hidden from public consciousness for years. Neate believes that this is partly to do with the fact that there was no-one fighting to change the situation: "For years there was an acceptance that because this cancer primarily affects older men, it wasn't worth worrying about and it was easy for politicians and the media to neglect it as a problem."

With Neate at the helm, the Prostate Cancer Charity is now attempting to get men to ask the right questions about prostate cancer. The charity knew from research that only one in eight men even realised they had a prostate gland, and the concept of encouraging people to understand its function was one of the main focuses of its work in 2003. This culminated in one of last year's most memorable charity campaigns, "More Spunky Than a Monkey?", which included an online quiz asking participants to guess which animal, including a pig and a camel, produces the most semen.

"If you're targeting young men, you've got to make them laugh and you've got to avoid preaching about health issues," says Neate. "Now that we've hopefully got some of their attention, we can move to building healthy relationships with new supporters who can take our message forward."

He also believes that men should look at what has been achieved for women in the breast cancer movement to see how they have gained the power to push for better health provision and services. He calls the breast cancer movement "an inspiration" and a benchmark of what can be achieved.

"I think the breast cancer movement will acknowledge that it hasn't achieved all that it would like to, but it has been outstandingly successful at rallying people to its cause," he says. "I think we can fast-track our learning and get somewhere similar through learning their lessons."

Neate, who calls himself a "natural campaigner", has found his niche as a pioneer of change. But why choose health? With his energy and ambition, Neate would have made a dynamic human or civil-rights campaigner. Instead, he spent 20 years working his way up through the health sector before arriving at Prostate Cancer Charity's door in 2002.

"I think I found the whole health system a really interesting place to be a manager," he explains.

"Having got into it, I saw how important health was to people across society and it's the opportunity to make a difference that gripped me."

He finished a career in chemical engineering but found that, halfway through his first year, he was more interested in people than cold scientific facts. So Neate used his degree as a springboard to achieving his more long-term leadership and teamwork goals, and found his way into the NHS management training scheme. But once he reached the voluntary sector via the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Neate was fully able to indulge his campaigning streak.

"I wanted to be in an environment where you were allowed to shape your own direction and achieve the changes you wanted to," he says. "Working at a charity has allowed me to do this."

Neate says he's not "massively creative in an original sense" but can spot what works well where, and is able to give concepts shape and take a strategic view about where an organisation is going - something which has culminated in the Prostate Cancer Charity's ambitious five-year strategy.

As well as increasing its income from £3m to £8m in five years, the charity wants to raise its profile as a campaigning and research-based organisation and forge links with ethnic audiences. Its first step has been to launch an African-Caribbean awareness project. It is also working on a strategy to increase its regional reach by proposing mergers with some independent prostate cancer groups and community collectives.

"We can work much better together than we can apart, and if we can join with strong local groups, then we can combine their community activity with our national agenda," he says.

The charity's aim is to create a framework of national campaigning that will increase its ability to reach men across the UK and boost its public profile. "Our £8m target will stretch us, but is achievable," he says.

"And if we're working with local groups we'll broaden our appeal to local funders. Local groups will be able to extend their influence by being part of a national organisation."

Even though there is still a large mountain to climb, Neate is positive that the charity and its supporters have the potential to reach their goals. "Change was needed and we've come a long way in making that happen," he says. "But there is still much more to be done, and everyone needs to work together with real synergy to make this rhetoric a reality."


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