Six years ago, Eleanor Southwood was one of the bright young things chosen to take part in the exclusive Clore Social Leadership Programme, set up to give the coming generation of talented individuals a leg up into high-profile social sector roles. As part of her one-year fellowship, she made three podcasts examining leadership in the not-for-profit sector. The middle episode – How To Survive – was eerily prophetic.
In November last year, 36-year-old Southwood, who was born blind, was appointed chair of trustees at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Within six months, Ofsted had published a damning report on the RNIB Pears Centre for Specialist Learning in Warwickshire, concluding that there were "consistent failures" in safeguarding of vulnerable residents.
That prompted the Charity Commission to launch a statutory class inquiry and the RNIB’s chief executive, Sally Harvey, to resign with immediate effect. To top it all, end-of-year figures showed the charity’s revenue had fallen, while money spent exceeded money raised by 10 per cent.
Southwood had walked into a full-on crisis. Has she listened again to her earlier podcasts for words of comfort? "I think you are probably the only person to have listened to them," she jokes. "What I found when making them was that, among the charity leaders I interviewed, there was a determination to draw on their own resilience to pull them through when things got tough. That is what I have done.
"But they also talked about core purpose: you need to know in a crisis why you are there, otherwise you would start wondering."
Her voice trails off. So did she begin to question herself? "Honestly, no." She doesn’t need the "honestly". In person, Southwood radiates integrity. It is a quality in short supply among many leaders today, but in person she has it by the gallon.
"The reason I am here," she explains, "is that the RNIB is a great organisation. I am immensely proud of what it has achieved, and I know how much it is needed now because of the challenges blind and partially sighted people are facing. If you can’t see, you have only a one-in-four chance of being in employment. That is outrageous. So at the RNIB we owe it to people to be our best, and clearly we haven’t been our best."
Honest and passionate, too. We are sitting in an upstairs room in the RNIB’s rather grand London headquarters, just near King’s Cross Station. If you travel there by underground, a pre-recorded announcement over the tannoy tells people this is where you get off if you want the RNIB. At 150 years old, it is that sort of venerated national institution. But it has been in a heap of trouble of late.
Southwood offers no ifs, no buts and no excuses about the safeguarding failures at the RNIB Pears Centre.
"We clearly let down a group of vulnerable children and families who called the centre their home. I feel profoundly, personally sorry about that." As, she adds, does the whole board, which is why they have announced this month that they are going to close the centre.
"It has been an incredibly difficult decision," she stresses, "but it is based on our acceptance that we are not the right organisation to be running that service, as has been reflected back to us by the regulators." The centre is the only children’s home the RNIB runs, she points out, and is close to a clinical environment because some of the young people there need 24/7 support for their complex care needs, of which sight loss is just one.
An internal RNIB enquiry, commissioned by the trustees, continues, so Southwood will not talk about whether the problems there were long-running and should have been tackled sooner, which is one way of reading Sally Harvey’s resignation.
The Charity Commission’s investigation is also continuing. Other leaders might perhaps have chosen to delay any final decision about the RNIB Pears Centre until the verdict was available, but Southwood is eager to face up to what has happened and get on with moving forward. The same attitude shapes her plans for the RNIB.
It too, she admits, though she doesn’t say it in so many words, has lost its way. The 2016/17 financial results showed an organisation living beyond its means (£119.2m raised and a deficit of £12.6m). It has also been shedding staff at quite a rate: 174 made redundant last year and 93 so far this year, amounting to 12.3 per cent of the 2,161 headcount at the start of the process.
"It’s been challenging," she acknowledges. "The past nine months haven’t been what I envisaged on becoming chair.
Losing people is a really sad thing. We recognise that, but the responsibility is to run the organisation in the best way. Change is not always an easy thing."
And for all the pain, there are signs of gain. Income will be down in the 2017/2018 accounts (yet to be published), she concedes, but expenditure has been cut further and the RNIB will therefore record a small surplus. It is a start.
With Harvey gone, there is currently an interim chief executive, Eliot Lyne, with the permanent post to be advertised in the early autumn. Has the interregnum placed more day-to-day burden on Southwood’s shoulders than most chairs carry?
"I’ve been doing two, sometimes two and a half days a week," she says, "so I have probably been more involved than is usual. But we are clear about my role as chair, which is primarily a governance function. I have been careful about not blurring the lines."
And, anyway, it is a positive thing, she adds, that in a crisis the charity’s chair is both around in the office and available to staff to answer their concerns: "People know who I am. Visibility is important as we go through a time of transition."
Southwood is active on Twitter. A few days before our meeting, she tweeted about a report that shows 43 per cent of visually impaired people are doing jobs for which they are overqualified because they lack the confidence to put themselves forward for bigger roles. Where, I wonder, does her evident self-belief come from?
"A lot of it goes back to how I grew up," she says. "My family had every expectation that I’d achieve whatever I wanted to. They moved halfway up the country [from Walthamstow in east London to Derby] when I was seven to get me into the right school."
The shift was from a specialist school to a mainstream primary for both Southwood and her younger sister. Both have Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, a condition that means they have no "useful" sight. She can see light, she explains, but not sufficient detail to read or navigate the transport system without a cane.
"Mainstream was right for us, but is not right for everybody. The point is that my parents were able and willing to do what was right for us, but not every family is able to do that. And why should you have to? Why shouldn’t every child with sight loss, irrespective of circumstances, have the same opportunities that I had?"
Those opportunities included going to Oxford, where she read PPE at St John’s College. After graduating in 2004, she worked in research and policy in public sector organisations (the New Local Government Network), employers’ groups (the CBI) and private firms before taking up her Clore fellowship and doing an MA at Birkbeck College, London, in 2012. She was shortlisted to be Labour’s candidate for the marginal Harrow East seat in 2015 and is currently a local councillor in Brent, where she holds the housing portfolio.
Her plate is pretty full. Does anything daunt her? "The physical barriers aren’t the ones that matter," she replies. "It is the everyday discrimination, the many small indignities. In my case, people will not ask before they grab hold of me when I’m getting off a train and using my cane. They want to be helpful, but it can be dangerous, particularly when they take the cane. The point is that they need to ask first and listen. When I say no to help, I mean no."
It isn’t difficult to see why the RNIB wanted her as its chair. But Southwood is going to need every ounce of her considerable determination, and equally obvious charisma, to see the charity through its current crisis. The challenge for her is not, though, just about surviving. It is about changing and adapting to become more relevant to the lives of those with sight loss.
At present the RNIB reaches only about a third of those who could benefit from its services. She is determined to connect with the other two-thirds who feel it isn’t for them, and to do that it has to try new approaches. "It doesn’t always have to be the RNIB with the answers," she says. "It isn’t ‘RNIB knows best’.
"That institutional charity feel is not what people are demanding from us now. Going forward, it has got to be about being out there, listening, working with others, being flexible, reacting to what people want from us."
It goes deeper too, in her opinion. "It can’t be all about people defining themselves by sight loss," she says. "My experience of sight loss is mine and is different from everyone else’s. We are all different. We are all part of all sorts of communities, and sight loss is just one aspect of people’s lives.
"But when people with sight loss need support, we have to be there for them. Every day, 250 people hear the news that they will lose some or all of their sight. For many of those people, there is currently no support there for them, and that is unforgiveable in the 21st century."