NEWSMAKER: Triumph over adversity - Maggie Semple OBE, Chief executive, Experience Corps

Emma Maier

As a former director at the Millennium Dome, Maggie Semple is no stranger to politically-charged and controversial jobs - though few would deny that her move from the Dome to the Experience Corps meant jumping from frying pan to fire.

The Experience Corps is a non-profit making company set up by the Government in 2001 to encourage the over-50s to get into volunteering. The Government invested £20m and set a target of recruiting 250,000 volunteers in three years, with particular emphasis on men, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and those living in England's 88 Neighbourhood Renewal regions.

To many this would seem a daunting challenge, but to Semple it was the kind of blank sheet she relishes. "We had a lot to achieve in three years and that kind of pressure doesn't suit everyone," she says, "but I find it concentrates the mind and really suits my dynamic."

She got off to a flying start, setting the Corps up in record time, and is immensely proud of this achievement. "For a government-funded project to set up so quickly and deliver in three months is a major success - I think that's something the Home Office should be trumpeting," she says.

"Usually these kinds of projects take up to two years to establish. We knew we didn't have that time and just got on with it."

But as well as the tight deadlines and high targets, there were also pressures that Semple couldn't have anticipated. The Experience Corps was attacked by some factions of the voluntary sector that felt that funding from the Government would have been better spent on existing projects.

Naturally, Semple disagrees.

"Before we were set up, an expert study was conducted and it didn't substantiate those claims," she says. "We target the over-50s and there is no other organisation with that specific remit at the scale at which we operate.

"Either way, territorialism is unhelpful because people are not units that I own and you don't. Many people are serial volunteers working with many different organisations, and that is great."

In August this year, the Home Office announced that it would not renew its funding to the Experience Corps after the initial grant expires in 2004 (Third Sector, 6 August 2003). But luckily for the Corps, Semple is not easily deterred. "I am always determined to succeed," says Semple. "When faced with adversity, my instinct is to come back even stronger. I am optimistic and pragmatic about what has to be done."

This is borne out in the Experience Corp's achievements. It has recruited 149,000 volunteers so far, and Semple is confident it will beat the target of 250,000 in time for its three-year anniversary next September. One third of those recruited are from black and minority ethnic groups, so the organisation has also succeeded in promoting volunteering across the boundaries of ethnic communities.

All of this has helped to win over some of the Corps' critics. "I have had people in the sector say to me that they were unsure of the Experience Corps when it was first established, but that they now see the benefits and that we are helping them to achieve their objectives," says Semple.

Her greatest strength is her creativity, and it is fitting that she began her working life in 1972 as a professional dancer. She danced her way through university and, after graduating, combined her career in contemporary dance with her work as a teacher.

Although she retired from the stage in the 1980s after a climactic final performance at London's Festival Hall, she remains passionate about the performing arts. Among the many organisations that she volunteers for are the Rambert Dance Company, and Sadlers Wells Theatre Trust. As a key member of the then DfEE National Curriculum Physical Education Working Group, she even wrote the dance component of the National Curriculum in the 1980s.

Semple joined North Westminster Community School in 1980 shortly after it was created through the merger of three smaller schools. As head of performing arts she not only created a single department and etched out a new strategy, but also transformed the dingy school gymnasium into a sparkling new theatre. To this day, the Westminster Studio Theatre remains a prime performance venue.

Semple's creativity was called upon during her time as director of the learning experience at the Millennium Dome. She was charged with turning the empty Teflon-coated shell into an unrivalled visitor attraction that would pull in sponsors and punters alike. By the end of 2000, sponsorship of £20m had been raised and Semple beat the target of getting 1.2 million young people through the doors by 400,000. "My expertise is in starting with a blank piece of paper and developing it into a reality," she says. "I love to try new approaches rather than being constrained by what exists already."

As the Corps nears the end of its three-year Home Office funding, Semple is as excited as ever about the organisation's future prospects. "Being beholden to a single funder means you are restricted. After 2004, we will no longer be relying on one department or one source, which means that we can diversify into new areas," she says.

For Semple the situation is just another chance to create something new, and as long as she is creating, she is happy to stay. "This new phase is really exciting because it's like setting up all over again," she says.

"When we've achieved that, the board will have to take a step back, look at the organisation and consider whether we have the right people to do the job. At that stage if my skills no longer fit, I'll move on."

Whatever lies ahead for Semple, who holds no fewer than 14 voluntary positions ranging from trustee to governor, there is no doubt she will remain busy.


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