Newsmaker: From outside in

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, believes charities benefit from managers with experience in the private sector.

Ciaran Devane
Ciaran Devane

Nobody would want to face the same route Ciaran Devane has had to take to become head of Macmillan Cancer Support. The chemical engineer and former management consultant joined the cancer charity in May after a career break following the loss of his wife to the disease four years ago.

He is candid about his travails. "I had a five-year cancer experience that I wouldn't have volunteered for, but nevertheless it is part of what I am and part of my background," he says.

Devane was approached by the charity to apply for the job after completing a masters degree in the US after his wife's death. His past experiences make him all the more determined to push the charity forward in a bid to improve the lives of those affected by the disease. But he says he won't allow them to affect his judgement as head of the organisation.

"I am absolutely clear that I will never base any decision on one data point, even if it is my own data point," he says. "That would be a risk. It's about taking the benefit of the experience as it was and not allowing that to cloud one's judgement."

Devane, who is 44, joins a list of voluntary sector leaders who have come from outside the sector. He doesn't see much difference between the working environments of the private, public or voluntary sectors, however. "You can have well-run organisations in every sector, so I never bought into this idea that there's a huge difference between third, public and private sector organisations," he says.

"You have great organisations in all of them and a lot of the principles are the same. The competence of people and many of the management challenges are the same."

But he does think that bringing in experience from outside the sector is important. "It would be a risk if every organisation worked with people out of the same mould," he says. "It's important to have diversity. I would worry if every organisation was run by someone like me."

His past as a management consultant is apparent. "Never underestimate the value of process, in the sense that how things get done is at least as important as what you are trying to do," he says. "If you get the 'how' right, you'll deliver a lot of the 'what'."

A former Samaritans volunteer, Devane says the sector has an important role to play in changing society. "There is a big job to be done and there are lots of organisations that need to play a part in that," he says. "We have a duty to be effective for the person that puts a pound in the tin outside Somerfield and to spend that well and deliver as much as possible."

Changing society can and often should involve delivering public services, he says. "There is a lot of support in society in general for the voluntary sector to engage in service provision and policy work, and that is something that should be encouraged," he says. "There is a lot that we can do."

Fresh from his first experience of the party conference season, something he describes as "very educational", he also believes it's important for large charities to take a campaigning lead in certain policy areas. "At Macmillan, I think we have a role in building a collective voice when we can and when appropriate," he says.

But he isn't about to set the charity off on a different course. "If you ask where Macmillan will be going in the future, I think it will be going exactly where it has been going."

He feels the charity's success is measured by its impact. "We have to achieve that," he says. "If Macmillan is not improving the service to people affected by cancer, it is not doing its job. The good news is we clearly are. But that's why we are here."

DEVANE CV
2007: Chief executive, Macmillan Cancer Support
2006: Masters degree in international policy and practice, George
Washington University, Washington DC
2001: Group director, consulting, World Class International
1994: Head of life sciences practice, Gemini Consulting
1984: Engineer and manager in research, production and marketing, ICI

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