Rob Owen: Lessons from 10 years at the top

You have to trust your instincts and invest in evaluation and your staff, says the chief executive of the ex-offenders charity the St Giles Trust

Rob Owen
Rob Owen

When I became chief executive of St Giles Trust in 2007 after previously working as an investment banker, what really stood out was how the charity put ex-offenders at the centre of its work by training them to become professional case workers.

Prison is an incredibly isolating experience, so who better to understand the difficulties than those who have been there themselves. Not everyone agreed. The first lesson I learned was to trust what you believe in.

Back in 2007, many people in the sector were sceptical about our ex-offender-led approach. "They will let you down," I was told. Far from it. What I’ve found is that by giving someone a second chance and the right support you get huge returns in terms of loyalty, engagement and results. 

I would highly recommend investing in your staff. If you make them feel empowered and valued, they will go that all-important extra mile – and you will get far better results. 

I have learned the importance of getting results externally evidenced and evaluated, and of being transparent about the findings. This way you will be able to demonstrate that you are worthy of further funding and at a greater scale. A recent evaluation by PwC found that our services deliver a social return on investment of £8.54 for every £1 spent on them. Most charities will have hidden impact they can uncover, so I heartily recommend digging it out.

But a continued frustration has been getting full cost recovery for our work.  Persuading statutory commissioners to think about the long-term is incredibly difficult. When faced with public sector cuts, funders and commissioners can gravitate to the cheapest option – one that paradoxically costs more in the future.

This means excellent services that make a huge difference to society will come to an end and you might be faced with the galling prospect of having to make highly valued staff redundant. This is where I’ve found it extraordinarily tough on both a professional and a personal level. Lost talent is not easily replaced.

I have no easy answers to give any chief executive who is in this position. At times, some of the decisions about statutory funding appear crazy. During my earlier years, it really got to me – and it still does. Over time I have learned the importance of trying to stay sanguine. Ask for feedback, apply what is in line with the charity’s goals and ethos and be persistent.

Finally, I would say keep your voluntary funders and supporters engaged, thanked and valued. Never, ever take them for granted. They are the ones who often provide you with your main source of gold dust – the unrestricted funding that keeps the charity running smoothly. 

Heading the St Giles Trust has given me more sleepless nights than investment banking ever did. But the bags under my eyes are well worth it because I’m in awe of our staff and the life-changing work they do. I will be marking my 10th year with a two-month sabbatical, during which I will attempt to summit Mount Everest and Mount Lhotse, and fundraise for St Giles at the same time. It is my own way of paying tribute to the enormous work of my team.

Rob Owen is the chief executive of the St Giles Trust

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