NEWSMAKER: A question of priorities - Richard Brewster, Chief executive, Scope


The Spastics Society used to be one of Britain's household name charities. It was established in 1952 by a group of parents of children with cerebral palsy, who wanted a better deal for their disabled kids.

They set up support groups throughout the country, introduced services for people with cerebral palsy and fundraised hard so that the charity became one of the biggest in the country.

In the 1980s, the charity received a publicity boost when the children's TV programme Blue Peter documented the day-to-day life of Joey Deacon, an elderly man with cerebral palsy. Although the associated Blue Peter Appeal raised £1 million for disabled people, Joey Deacon and his disability were pounced upon by schoolchildren who invented new forms of abuse based on the programme. To be a "Joey

or a spastic was a common insult associated with committing a playground sin such as dropping a ball or tripping over.

The Joey Deacon effect was not isolated - it resonated with wider debates about the way that disability was viewed by society. During the 1970s and 1980s, campaigners argued that they wanted more positive images of people with disabilities, coupled with a recognition that they had rights just like able-bodied members of society.

The Spastics Society, as the bearer of what had become an unfortunate title, recognised the change in the way society looked at disability and discussions had been going on since the 1970s about changing its name.

But change happened slowly. When Richard Brewster joined the charity as director of marketing in 1989, initial research into the possibility of a name change had been going on for four years, although no action had been taken.

Eventually, by the early 1990s, parents of young children were refusing to be associated with The Spastics Society for fear that their children would be subject to taunts. The future of the charity depended on a radical change in image.

The change in name from The Spastics Society to Scope was, and still is, the biggest relaunch in the charity world. The project was overseen by Brewster and became one of the key moments in his 14-year career at Scope, which will come to an end next February.

Brewster joined the voluntary sector in 1986 after 10 years earning a healthy private-sector salary at ICI. Realising he wanted a more fulfiling career, in his mid-30s, after doing some voluntary work with development charities, he took a job at Oxfam. The resulting plummet in salary and change in career meant he had to uproot his pregnant wife and three young children from Lancashire to Oxford. "It was quite a traumatic move, but I have never regretted it, not for a moment,

he says.

After three years at Oxfam, a job came up at The Spastics Society that attracted Brewster. As director of marketing he would have responsibility for fundraising, campaigning and public relations - this drew upon the marketing experience he had gained at Oxfam, and he was excited about getting involved in campaigning.

A great deal of time during his first years at the charity was taken up with the name change. "It was a major exercise. You are not going to replace a household name of 40 years standing overnight,

he says. After all those years of discussions, the 1992 AGM approved a change, then after two further years The Spastics Society became Scope.

The relaunch has been judged a success and a model of its kind. After presiding over this triumph, Brewster took up the chief executive post of Scope in 1995. Building on the change of name, he has given Scope a better focus and sense of direction. "My own personal view is that there was a lack of clear strategy,

he says. "We could always have done more if we had had a sharper focus."

Brewster has worked with Scope's trustees and senior management to rethink the charity's aims. In November 1999, Scope announced that its principal focus would be on equality for disabled people. Linking with this, Brewster introduced a set of outcomes that should be achieved. "We now only spend the money that we've got according to our priorities,

he says. "Now Scope is able to say that we know what we aim to do by 2006."

He argues that such clarity is crucial in an organisation where members and trustees bombard the charity with requests to solve a huge range of problems. In addition, Brewster argues that the Government's real desire for equality for disabled people creates its own set of problems. "The difficulty is that there are so many issues that you can become absorbed in their embrace,

he says. "We need to concentrate on the outcomes and not let the organisation drift."

After his wife survived Brewster's move to the voluntary sector all those years ago, he has decided to follow her as her career takes her to the US. It's the first time that this man, so enthusiastic about strategy and focus, doesn't have a focus of his own.

Without a job to go to, he plans to take time to reflect on his experiences as a chief executive and is considering conducting research into leadership in the US voluntary sector.

"I have thought that when I close the door for the last time I will heave a sigh of relief,

he says. "But I'm not sure how long that will last.

I love the hustle and bustle of the chief executive's job."


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