When it was first announced in April that Nick Wilkie was taking over as chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, the reaction on social media was not entirely positive.
"Some people were questioning why a man had been appointed, and I absolutely understand that point of view," says Wilkie. He acknowledges that some organisations should naturally have leaders with a particular background and that women are still under-represented in leadership roles across different sectors.
But he does not believe this is the case for the NCT because, for some time, the organisation has presented itself as a leading charity for parents – not just for mothers.
"We are about supporting parents through the first 1,000 days, from conception to a child's second birthday," he says. He stresses that this does not detract from the charity's role in pregnancy and childbirth – it just means that the remit has become broader: "I'm an 'and/also' kind of person – the focus on the first 1,000 days does not make our childbirth work any less important."
Wilkie himself has considerable experience of hands-on parenting. He has a three-year-old boy and 12-month-old twins. He took a year off work to be a full-time parent with the first child and he and his wife share parental leave with the twins.
He is keen to stress the charity's potential role in contributing to a stronger and fairer society through support for parents. He sees this goal as a continuation by the NCT of the radical spirit that led to its creation in the 1950s.
The charity is particularly suited to helping achieve social benefits through parental support, he says, because it is a genuine social movement and does not depend on government for its funding. It is also benefiting from increasing recognition from those in government of the importance of early years development.
Wilkie, previously UK programmes director at Save the Children, took up his job in July and says his main focus now is on listening to the opinions of the NCT's trustees, its 195 full-time-equivalent staff and many of the 5,000 volunteers at its 317 branches. "I didn't come here with a big vision of my own, but I liked the NCT's vision of supporting parents to create a fairer society – that connected with my personal and professional experience," he says.
He acknowledges that the NCT has been associated with middle-class parents but says the charity's objective is to support "all kinds of parents".
Volunteers, staff and other stakeholders he has talked to have, he says, conveyed the message that they want the organisation to broaden its scope. This is already beginning to happen in small ways, he says. In one project, for example, the NCT is working with expectant mothers in prison.
In other areas it is also working with communities that have not traditionally used the charity's services. In north-east England, the NCT is supporting the training of students to work as peer supporters in local communities. Some of these students will be undertaking further training that will enable the charity to offer antenatal and breastfeeding help in these communities.
In Queen's Park, north-west London, which has significant deprivation, the NCT has trained 16 "maternity champions" to offer peer support to new parents. This scheme offers an opportunity for those in the community who take part in the training to gain recognised qualifications.
According to Wilkie, such initiatives might indicate the future direction of the NCT. One of the main challenges for the charity, which has an income of £17.6m, will be money, he says. Although it is sound financially, things are always tight and reserves not large. "We want to extend our reach to support more parents across the UK, and this requires investment," he says. "The challenge we face is to manage that investment while not compromising on the quality or affordability of our services."
But a big advantage enjoyed by the charity is that it is one of few organisations welcomed into people's homes from the start of a child's life. "That puts us in a great position to support parents," he says. "I'm very excited about our ability to harness that expertise and experience to help create a better society."