Sarah Atkinson: 'My six-month plan did not include a global pandemic'

After 13 years at the Charity Commission, Sarah Atkinson has jumped the fence to become a charity chief executive. As a social mobility crisis looms, Rebecca Cooney finds out why she’d rather be in the room where it happens

"It is a bit weird to be able to just be me,” Sarah Atkinson admits towards the end of her interview with Third Sector.

It might seem a strange remark in a world where “bringing your whole self to work” is lauded, but before taking up her current role as chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation in January, Atkinson spent 13 years as a civil servant at the Charity Commission, most recently as its director of policy and communications. The civil service habit of talking less and smiling more dies hard, it seems.

Atkinson loved working at the commission, in part because it gave her an overview of the entire charity sector and the variety that came with that. But she says she gradually realised she no longer wanted to watch the action from the outside.

“When you’re a regulator there’s always going to be a certain superficiality about the contribution you can really make to driving change in what charities do,” she says. “I spent a lot of time talking about charity leadership and what it needed to do, and needed to be, in the future. It was time to stop talking about it and to do it.”

As a “gamekeeper turned poacher” (or “possibly rabbit?” she suggests), Atkinson is understandably keen to focus on the future and her plans for the SMF in a world no one could have predicted a few months ago, but it’s impossible not to ask the self-professed “recovering regulator” what she makes of the often tempestuous relationship between the sector and the commission.

Her initial response is as guarded as one might expect. “Good conversations are happening” between the commission and the sector about the commission’s role during the pandemic, she says, and the regulator’s advice has “been welcomed and recognised”.

Digging a little deeper though, she reflects that “through this period, there’s still a distance between how the sector wants to be seen and engaged with by the government and the experience it’s actually having. The roots of that are hugely complex and laid down over a really long period of time.”

She worries that this distance threatens to sabotage the sector’s contribution to the coronavirus response, and she believes that far from being diametrically opposed foes, the commission might be the sector’s most valuable ally.

“The Charity Commission is the only bit of government that focuses only on the charity sector: not things ‘like charities’, not social enterprises, good causes or CSR,” she says. “That’s quite precious turf because the rest of government can ignore charities (it shouldn’t, and it doesn’t, but it can), whereas the commission can’t.

“There is so much common ground between the commission and the sector, and all the energy goes into the things that are disagreement. Remembering that commonality and then disagreeing from there is much more healthy and positive on both sides.”

Taking the full-time plunge

Atkinson joined the commission as head of corporate affairs in 2006, having previously worked as a communications consultant and then at the Nationwide Building Society as a public relations manager. She’s also got an impressive history of trusteeship, having served on charity boards since she was 23. “This sounds kind of dweeby, but trusteeship is a huge part of what I do in my free time,” she says, when asked about hobbies.

Her move into the sector full-time had to be for the right cause, she says. It also required an organisation that was willing to risk taking on someone who had never previously had a paid job in a charity.

The opportunity eventually arrived thanks to the SMF, which offers mentoring, training and internships to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them to progress into professional careers. The charity’s mission chimed with Atkinson’s personal passions: “My pet theory has always been that the thing which unites most charities is that our GDP is self-esteem and wellbeing and dignity – that is what we manufacture,” she says. “It’s not just spending money; it’s building something that we can be proud of.”

Then, in March, the world turned upside down with the advent of coronavirus and the lockdown. “The job and the organisation and the work are wonderful – everything I’d hoped – but my six-month plan did not include a global pandemic and working out how to deliver a programme without any face-to-face communication,” Atkinson says.

She managed to meet the charity’s 27 staff members (“an achievable number to really get your arms around”) face-to-face before lockdown and, she hopes, managed to establish a base level of trust and familiarity that would have been hard to build virtually.

There have undoubtedly been times when she’s wished she had a greater depth of understanding of the charity, she says, but there have also been benefits to being new.

“I was grieving the things I was going to do with my first few months and I’ve had to let some of that go, but my team is grieving the normal programme, and how we normally work,” she says.

Not having experienced the old normal gave Atkinson greater freedom to respond flexibly to the crisis, she says – but even so, moving a place-based, programme-delivering organisation online in a matter of weeks is an impressive feat.

There has been an assumption within some parts of the sector that moving programmes and activities online will create greater access for its service users, but this is often not the case for the young people SMF works with, because many have limited access to the internet or to internet-connected devices and are living in small, crowded houses without private space to study.

In response, the charity is offering on-demand content that can be viewed on platforms young people already have access to, so they aren’t forced to download new software, and it is delivering tailored support to help people develop online presenting skills.

Creating virtual experiences for young people that replicate visits the charity would normally offer to help them feel familiar with educational institutions where they are under-represented, has been a more “profound challenge”, Atkinson says, adding that she will be watching the evaluation figures carefully.

Although her original plans for her first six months might have taken a back seat as the charity pivoted to deal with the crisis, there are some key things Atkinson is determined to bring to her new job.

Her time at the commission gave her the opportunity to be involved with strong collaborative initiatives, but she also saw “a lot of good ideas fail” because of “organisations fighting with each other for territory and having the attitude that they didn’t want to do things if they couldn’t control them”. This is a mindset she is eager to shift. “I have an absolute belief that we can achieve greater things if we’re not fussed about taking the credit,” she says.

She also plans to build the charity’s capacity for influencing and advocacy work through its newly created Department of Opportunities campaigning unit (see “The insider’s guide to good advocacy”, previous pages). “SMF supports 2,000 young people a year, which is amazing, but it’s also not nearly enough and we’re not going to change things fast enough at that pace,” she says.

Rebuilding lost ground

Advocacy to bring about wider change would allow the charity to support not only the academic high-achievers it already works with, but also ensure less gifted but hard-working students are not held back by their backgrounds, Atkinson says.

This feels particularly pressing given the impact of Covid-19 on the charity’s mission, with SMF having undoubtedly “lost ground” in the past few months. Young people from well-off backgrounds are more likely to be receiving extra support and online resources from schools, and have access to tutors and the resources for wider learning at home. When schools return, Atkinson worries that the focus on academic catch-up will come at the expense of enrichment activities that help to build career skills and networks.

And with a recession looming, young people are heading into an economy with fewer jobs and more competition, while industries that have traditionally supported youngsters from low-income backgrounds to rise up, such as engineering, construction, retail and hospitality, are likely to be among the hardest hit.

“Some of the companies that were supporting us aren’t going to be able to continue doing so, and where companies had made a commitment to ensure the inclusion of young people from low-income backgrounds, that’s going to go into the ‘too-difficult box’,” Atkinson says.

“It’s getting worse in front of our eyes. It wasn’t good enough already and it’s slipping back. New barriers are going up.”

“Go big and radical”

So what does an ex-civil servant want to see from the government in the face of this potential social mobility crisis?

“The same ambition, passion and radical thinking that created the furloughing scheme, because it recognised these were unique circumstances,” Atkinson says. “That should be going into ensuring young people with limited social chances are not the victims of the recovery.

“This is a government that understood, from the day it was elected, that place was critically important, that the experience you have growing up in Mansfield is different from the experience of growing up in west London.”

But she’s not satisfied with the progress on that understanding, pointing to the government’s own Social Mobility Commission, which found that less than a quarter of the recommendations it has made since 2013 have been enacted.
“If you talk about levelling up, but there’s no leadership, there’s no one driving it, it becomes a cruel joke,” she says, dropping the niceties to make her point.

As for charities, she adds, there needs to be a united, collaborative approach that employs the hard-won wisdom earned in previous recessions. “As a society, we didn’t do the right thing by young people in the 2008 financial crash, and social mobility suffered,” she says.

“We are already set up for this recession to be an unrecognisable number of times worse than that, so we need to be working out what we are going to do, and it has to be big and radical.”

In some ways, she says, the challenge is hugely energising.

“The mission that brought me to the Social Mobility Foundation is even more important and urgent, but it does mean we’re going to have to work even harder to stand still – and I don’t want to stand still,” she says. “That isn’t what I expected when I took the job.”

The picture she paints is pretty bleak, and the challenge of leadership in such circumstances could be daunting. But there’s a kind of calm, fierce optimism to Atkinson.

“I asked for this,” she says. “Sometimes during the difficult days of lockdown, I’ve had to say to myself ‘come on, you wanted this responsibility’.

“On the brilliant days when I see what the team is achieving, what the students are doing and having my name on the door of this amazing organisation, I asked for that as well.

“They come together – if you want that sense of achievement and purpose, the heavy lifting is part of it.”

The insider’s guide to good advocacy

A key part of Atkinson’s role at the Charity Commission, she says, was to explain to charities how the regulator worked – and to how colleagues how charities worked. 

“I have been on the receiving end of lots of influencing and advocacy, some of it intelligent and successful, some of it poorly done,” she says.

“The most successful lobbying said ‘where are you coming from and what do you want? Here’s where we’re coming from and what we want.’

“Then it either worked on the common ground, or was honest about acknowledging that we wanted different things and established the territory on which there was going to be disagreement.”

Bad lobbying fails to think about or understand the decision-maker’s agenda, process or responsibilities, Atkinson says.

“If you just turn up and say ‘we want this’, you bring an aggressive attitude to what could have been an open door,” she says.

Of course, she adds, sometimes it is impossible to deliver what is being asked for. Under those circumstances a willingness to focus on the impact, rather than the means for achieving it, can often be a way to open doors that were previously closed.

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