Stephen Hale: The best leaders listen, collaborate, and draw on each others' ideas

Stephen Hale has led Refugee Action through turbulent times politically and financially. Rebecca Cooney finds out why he thinks working together is the way forward

Stephen Hale (Photograph: Colin Stout)
Stephen Hale (Photograph: Colin Stout)

On a blazing hot day in June 2015, Stephen Hale stepped out of Refugee Action’s London offices to buy ice creams for staff. When he returned, the new chief executive, who was just four months into his role, was told that the Home Office planned to axe the contract for its Choices service the following December.

At the time, the government contract for the Assisted Voluntary Returns Programme, which helped asylum seekers explore options for returning to their home countries, accounted for 80 per cent of Refugee Action’s total income. Half a decade later the charity’s work remains tangled up with politics. A person fleeing persecution and war who arrives in the UK will find decisions about whether they can stay, where they live, how much income they have and whether they can work or learn English will be decided entirely by one government department.

And although the results of the 2019 general election marked a “fundamentally new phase” in refugee charities’ relationship with government, Hale sees “no grounds for optimism”.

He says: “Even if money were infinite, the challenges that people face once they’re here – if they want to get justice, if they want to rebuild their lives – are overwhelmingly the product of Home Office policies and practices. If we want to get to the root causes of the problems they face, we have to influence the Home Office.”

Adversaries and partners

Listening to Hale talk, the relationship between the charity and the department feels like the classic cinematic trope of antagonist and protagonist forced to team up occasionally for the greater good, sliding uneasily between the roles of adversaries and partners. Since taking over the helm of Refugee Action, he says, there have been three distinct phases in the government’s approach to his cause.

The first was during Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary, when her hostile environment drove “pernicious policy-making” and created a hard-to-navigate system riddled with “egregious injustices”. The second came after the Windrush scandal, which exposed the ways in which the Home Office consistently let vulnerable people down. For a moment, Hale says, it looked as if the government was open to grappling with the department’s many institutional failings.

But little came from that moment, Hale says, partly because the Home Office, more than any other department he’s dealt with, “is institutionally hostile, has poor leadership and finds change difficult”, and partly because of the political paralysis that has engulfed everything unrelated to Brexit. The most direct example of this for Refugee Action is its campaign, joined by 230 partners, to lift the ban on asylum seekers working while their asylum claims are assessed. Since December 2018, both the Home Secretary of the time, Sajid Javid, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have said a decision must be made, but so far nothing tangible has emerged.

And so to this latest phase: a Conservative government with a solid majority and Priti Patel, a Home Secretary who, like May, appears to view immigration with hostility. It’s a “moment of change”, Hale says, adding that the organisation will need to review its strategy. But he says that the most important thing is for the charity and the wider voluntary community to focus on those things over which they do have control.

“My first conclusion is that we have to double down on our work with funders and with other charities to strengthen the sector,” he says. “The system for supporting people who need help is something we need to have ambition for. We have control over that and responsibility for it.

“At Refugee Action we see ourselves as one of the stewards of that system and want to work with other organisations that are part of that.”

Collaboration on both personal and organisational levels has been a hallmark of Hale’s leadership of Refugee Action, and it’s one of the reasons he seems uncomfortable with the prospect of being profiled. On the one hand, he led the charity through an incredibly turbulent period, overcoming the potentially catastrophic loss of Home Office funding as well as loud antipathy to its cause in some sections of the media, the government and the public.

On the other hand, he clearly has qualms about the idea that he might be solely responsible for “rescuing” the charity, changing it from an organisation largely devoted to delivering services into one that also focuses heavily on advocacy and campaigning.

“The media loves stories about heroic leaders, and leadership is very important,” he says. “But if you look at the people I believe do well as leaders, they’re not working in a top-down way. They have high emotional intelligence, they listen, they collaborate and draw on others’ ideas.”

Hale then lists those whom, he says, have been instrumental to the charity’s success, particularly the senior leadership team of Tim Hilton, Lou Calvey, Nicola Parker, Yemane Tsegai, Zoë Grumbridge and Mariam Kemple-Hardy.

Last year, Hale won Third Sector’s Charity Chief Executive of the Year Award, with the judges particularly praising his abilities as a strategic leader. This quality becomes apparent when you speak to him. He pauses when questioned, long enough to seem considerate rather than hesitant, and scribbles notes to himself as he weighs up his responses. His answers are divided into twos and threes: there are three stages spanning the evolution of Refugee Action’s relationship with government over the past five years, two routes to scale, two three-year strategies for the charity, and so on.

He’s keen to stress that the charity’s key success of the past five years has not been its financial recovery, but its strategy and its vision for the future. Nevertheless, although the numbers might not be the whole story, they are impressive. When Hale arrived at Refugee Action in February 2015, more than 80 per cent of the charity’s funding came from the Home Office, 5 per cent from trusts and foundations and just 2 per cent from public fundraising.

Once the Choices Voluntary Return grant was axed, the understandable temptation might have been to begin chasing similar contracts in new locations that would make up for the lost funds.

Instead the charity dug into its reserves and threw its energies into diversifying its funding, increasing its income from trusts and foundations by 450 per cent and from public fundraising by 350 per cent over the next four years. Today, 35 per cent of the charity’s funding comes from trusts and foundations, 15 per cent from public fundraising. The other half comes from local authorities and the Home Office.

Refugee Action’s ambitious strategy has included the decision to deliver front-line services only in parts of the country where it already had a presence. It also decided it wouldn’t try to grow by taking on contracts that existing organisations could have fulfilled, collaborating with them, rather than competing.

With financial freedom came the freedom to expand its advocacy and campaigning roles, and to work with other organisations in the same space, something it had wanted to do even before the funding shock, Hale says. At the core of his strategy was the need to put the cause, and what was right for those the charity supported, ahead of the organisation itself. It’s an approach he believes the voluntary sector should embrace, although he appreciates it’s difficult for some.

“For me, the right thing to do – and it’s a brave thing to do if you’re in a bigger, older organisation – is to go back to first principles and ask yourself what would be the best thing to do to achieve your organisational goals,” he says.

“Ask that question in a way that doesn’t assume the things you already do, and the approaches you already have, are right.”

Best outcomes

The two routes to scaling up the charity’s work and getting the best outcomes for asylum seekers, Hale says, are influencing the Home Office and supporting other organisations in the sector by enhancing the skills they have. Over the past six months the charity has been developing the Asylum Reform Initiative – a campaign group run jointly by Refugee Action, the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Freedom From Torture and others – in an attempt to have a truly integrated approach to lobbying the Home Office.

The idea that collaboration is the “silver bullet” that will solve the familiar challenges for charities of falling income, rising demand and wavering public trust, is a refrain he and others have been repeating for years, and there is a growing sense that progress is happening.

“People are rarely resistant to collaboration,” he says, particularly in the refugee and asylum sector, which is made up of small, often stretched charities. And he feels the narrative is changing in the voluntary sector as a whole.

“I think people are increasingly recognising something that everyone in the street who gives to charity would already see as basic common sense,” he says. “That where there are other organisations with goals similar to yours, it’s better to work together than to compete.”

Hale recognises that there are still significant obstacles to collaboration: competition for funding and contracts can drive organisations apart, and many within the sector don’t necessarily have experience of working together in deep, strategic ways. Overcoming these barriers lies in communication: “We need to be swapping the recipes of how different organisations can work together, not just ‘my service will refer clients to yours’, but with a deeper sense of what a shared strategic plan would be.”

It’s also important, says Hale, that the largest and best-established organisations in the sector don’t develop an inflated sense of self. “To generalise, the bigger an organisation is and the older it is, the more you have to guard against becoming too focused on its own identity and impact,” he says. “There’s a risk that if you are big you start to feel ‘I am the thing’. If you’re much smaller you think ‘crikey, I’m a drop in the ocean’.”

For some, he says, collaboration is a survival reflex: “Without it they couldn’t get where they want to go. The sense that collaboration has drifted away from us is something that has probably come from the behaviour of larger organisations, not from smaller ones.”

Refugee Action’s initial three-year strategy to recover in the wake of the funding shock and grow the charity’s impact has paid off. Since 2016, it has supported more than 8,000 people to access justice and escape poverty, helped more than 4,000 refugees from Syria to rebuild their lives and secured £10m for English language classes for refugees. It has also enabled another 129 organisations to increase their immigration advice capacities. In a demonstration of its collaborative values, its last annual report named more than 50 service delivery and strategic partners. But Hale says that one thing he believes the charity failed to do was shift power to the people who are seeking asylum.

The right thing to do is to go back to first principles and ask yourself what would be the best thing to do to achieve your goals

Stephen Hale

A commitment of its next three-year phase, launched last year, was that 40 per cent of its board members would be “experts by experience” – people who have been through the asylum system in the UK – a target it has already achieved one year in. The charity is also working on increasing the proportion of its staff who have experience of the immigration system. This will take longer, Hale acknowledges, but the charity has begun by increasing the amounts of training and support it offers to volunteers, one of the core recruitment pools for the organisation.

The third element, he says, is the most important: how to shift power in decision-making. After taking advice from the human rights charity Freedom From Torture, which warned that trying to involve service users in every aspect of the organisation at once could lead to shallow, ineffectual engagement, Refugee Action decided to focus on the design and implementation of its campaigns.

A new full-time staff member in the campaigns team ensures that those with lived experience of the issues are actively involved, and supports independent beneficiary groups in Bradford and Manchester, where the charity does much work.

The organisation has made tangible progress, but Hale believes it will have to keep challenging itself to work differently in the next two years. And Refugee Action is not alone in this. In the new post-Brexit era, many charities will be taking stock and planning new ways to get things done.

“I think the voluntary sector has tremendous capacity, skills and potential power,” he says. “And we have no shortage of lofty ambitions to change the things we see that are profoundly wrong about the state of the world.

“We should believe in ourselves and be brave enough to build strategies and propositions that really can attack those issues, rather than not believing we can make that change.”

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