Third Sector research Diversity: Take me to your leaders... Fiona Reynolds, Director general, National Trust

There must be something in the water at Rugby High School for Girls.

National Trust chief executive Fiona Reynolds attended the school before going on to Cambridge University, and she now finds herself in charge of the second-largest fundraising charity in the UK. Following in her footsteps seven years later was Barbara Stocking, now chief executive of Oxfam, the third-biggest fundraising charity, who also went to the school before studying at Cambridge. Like Reynolds, she has been in her job for five years.

"When we noticed it, we found it fascinating," says Reynolds. "I knew of Barbara, but we didn't meet until we were both in our respective posts.

As far as I'm aware, though, that's where the similarities end."

As the highest-placed woman on the list of the top 50 chief executives, Reynolds believes that she, along with Stocking and their female peers, is making a positive difference to the sector. "When I first took up the role, women certainly didn't have the same presence in the top positions they do now," she says. "The sector is changing rapidly, and for the better."

So do she and Stocking share their collective expertise to get a head start on the rest of the sector? Along with the likes of the NSPCC'S Mary Marsh and the RNIB's Lesley-Anne Alexander, they are members of Groundbreakers, the networking group for voluntary sector women leaders. "As a group we meet occasionally and share perspectives on our respective challenges," Reynolds says.

Graham Willgoss

MATTHEW FROST, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, TEARFUND

At the age of 40, Matthew Frost is the youngest chief executive in the top 50 fundraising charities. He is one of the sector's bright young things, and some of his top 50 peers are 24 years his senior.

From his secondary education at Charterhouse public school and studying economics at Cambridge through to his work in the private, public and voluntary sectors, Frost admits he has had huge opportunities that have helped him land his ideal job - leading an international organisation.

"My education taught me how to think through situations with analytical rigour, and about the importance of relationships to making progress," he says.

A committed Christian, Frost has been at Tearfund, where he leads a team of 330 in the UK and 1,000 worldwide, for five months. But his love affair with the voluntary sector really blossomed during his time in the private sector. While working in corporate strategy for Bowater, he took a six-month sabbatical working for the international humanitarian aid NGO Medair in Somalia. The experience affected him so much that, despite being promoted to director of a manufacturing group at Bowater, he soon left to work for Medair. "With a briefcase of dollar bills just after the Taliban captured Kabul, I set up and ran Medair in Afghanistan from scratch," he says.

Since then, Frost has gained an MBA, helped set up the non-profit practice for McKinsey & Company consultants, worked for the Department for Education and Skills and completed freelance projects. He says his faith and his work for McKinsey and government were staging posts on his route to Tearfund.

Georgina Lock

JACKIE BALLARD, DIRECTOR GENERAL, RSPCA

"Over the past ten years, women have made a real breakthrough into the top ranks of chief executives," says Jackie Ballard, director general of the RSPCA. "At least eight are running well-known household names."

Ballard points to the recent appointment of Jasmine Whitbread to the top job at Save the Children as an example of the progress the sector has made in installing women in the leading roles. "This is another crucial breakthrough, and I'm sure we will achieve parity across the top 50 sooner rather than later," she says.

The RSPCA currently ranks ninth on CAF's list for voluntary income, making Ballard one of five women inside the top ten. At 53, she is the exact average age of the top 50 chief executives and, blind in her left eye, the only one with a disability. "I was born with it and I've lived with it all my life," she says. "But it's never hindered me in any way. I don't consider it a disability."

This response is typical of her fearless attitude and her refusal to toe the line on issues she feels strongly about. She gained her reputation as an animal rights campaigner because of her anti-hunting stance when serving as a Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton in Somerset. She was co-sponsor of the Private Member's Bill to ban hunting with dogs, which was passed by the Commons just before she lost her seat in 2001.

"The fact I had lost my seat fanned the flames because the press like nothing more than the fall of a successful woman," says Ballard of the wave of press coverage that followed her appointment at the RSPCA, attacking her credentials for the job. "But women have the potential to be great leaders in the sector - we are less territorial than men and can see the broader picture."

Graham Willgoss

CLARISSA BALDWIN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, DOGS TRUST

After working as a fashion model in her youth, it's not surprising that Clarissa Baldwin never dreamt she'd end up devoting 30 years of her life to the Dogs Trust.

She was a successful journalist and PR consultant before she gave up the high life in 1974 to join what was then the National Canine Defence League.

"I'd been working in PR - a fairly exciting life with celebrities and lots of glitz," says Baldwin. "I went for an interview with the charity and was invited to sit on a sofa in reception on which every stray dog in London must have peed. I did wonder what I had come to."

But Baldwin didn't let the superficialities put her off, and 12 years later she was made chief executive. Two decades on, she is the longest-serving chief executive in the top 50 charities. She still insists that "no two days are the same".

During Baldwin's time in the driving seat, the charity has undergone a fundraising revolution, growing from a small organisation whose staff did fundraising if they had the time to a professionally run money-making machine with an income of more than £34m a year. She is also the brains behind the sector's best-known marketing slogan - "a dog is for life, not just for Christmas".

Nathalie Thomas

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