Six was the magic number
I stepped down as a trustee on the board of Cancer Support Scotland in October 2018 after six years of being involved with the charity. I spent three as a trustee and three as Chairman. The last six years have been challenging, exciting, rewarding, frustrating, energising, fun, funny, educational, inspiring and a privilege. This is just a little bit about the story of ‘why’.
I had been working with charities on their direct marketing projects since around 2006 and really enjoyed the process of writing, crafting and delivering successful DM campaigns. Over the course of 2005 to 2010 SHINE had a great relationship with MS Society Scotland and I learned a lot about the third sector from working with the great trio of Glenda Mackenzie, Vanessa Rhazali and Katy Williamson.
The more I started to immerse myself with the world of charity I got an excellent piece of advice from a charity legend Gordon Michie which was to get myself on the speaking rota of the Institute of Fundraising. “Go and do talks at their conferences and be an expert in something” he told me. This led me to Scarborough in 2011 for the IOF Yorkshire conference. Something that would become an unmissable event for the next few years, both for the learning and the banter. I was lucky enough to meet a further group of people who I found utterly inspiring back then and still do today. They are Di Flatt, Stephen George and Rachel Hunnybun.
A friend of mine Louise Murray was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2011 and during her strong fight I was regularly hearing stories of her engagement with charities and how much she was leaning on them and the support and warmth she got from them as well as the reassurances and advice.
I had always enjoyed my work, being creative and I enjoyed the thrill and sport of business but I started to meet and mingle with people who could go home at the end of a day and be proud of their shift having made a significant difference to someones life. It was something I wanted to do. I genuinely considered a full time career in a charity but decided that having worked for myself for 13 years at that point I was utterly unemployable (I am also unbearable at times and really annoying) and there must be a way of combining my ‘day job’ with helping out a charity and getting the warm fuzzy feeling that I was craving.
Louise passed away in August 2012 and during her fight she was helped by two charities. Cancer Active and Cancer Support Scotland. I ran a marathon to raise money for Cancer Active in May 2012 and then I ran a marathon for Cancer Support Scotland in November 2012.
Through a bit of networking and the IOF and my running and fundraising exploits, I was asked to join the board of Cancer Support Scotland in November 2012 to utilise my Sales & Marketing experience. This was my first ever board experience and given I am the sole director of SHINE I evidently had a lot to learn about being on a board in respect of conduct, governance and procedure. Plus I learned at that first meeting that swearing (yes it was the F word I accidentally deployed) is frowned upon at these particular forums. I walked home that night ironically ‘cursing myself’ for swearing, but exciting about being involved in such a great and under exposed charity.
I spent my first year as a trustee watching, learning and taking in the workings, challenges and culture of the charity. I spent the second year ‘getting in and about things’ a bit more, and to steal a phrase from a fellow trustee I got the big pokey stick out and started to question, challenge and be a bit more direct with trying to better the ways and workings of a third sector organisation.
SHINE also undertook a very successful partnership with Cancer Support Scotland. Their graphic design interns would be based out of our offices but would be working solely on design work for the charity. The quality of design improved dramatically, the interns got a better experience being surrounded by creatives and we got another warm fuzzy feeling by developing new talent and we helped them with their CV and their interview skills. Im proud that many of the interns stepped straight into a design job at the end of their three month term and we still keep in touch with many of them.
As I got more involved I got more emotionally invested and with each problem that was uncovered I was compelled to find a better way to do things and start to apply some of the ‘getting shit done’ attitude that exists in business that doesn’t in charities. Don’t get me wrong, there is still the attitude to get things done in charities but there needs to be a committee and a couple of meetings first as opposed to deciding… 1) who has the skills and authority to lead the change… and 2) lets give them the freedom to go and do it.
Solve a problem using as few people as possible is a phrase I use a lot.
One of my bad traits as a person and as a business person is my inability to say ‘no’ at certain times. This means there are a lot of cushions in my house, but it also means I get myself involved in many things, many roles and many challenges. At one of our board meetings, volunteers were requested for succession planning and the role of vice-chair. I looked round the table of trustees and through there were some very well qualified people to take on the role, but no hands went up. The same process happened at the following meeting. Besides the vice chair role, there was succession planning in place for a lovely man called Michael Buchanan to take over as Chairman from the incumbent David Semple.
I eventually volunteered to get more involved and I would be vice-chair to Michael for a term before potentially taking the hotel seat myself. I got a phonecall while on holiday in September 2014 to be told that sadly Michael was diagnosed with Cancer. David Semple agreed to stay on as chair for one year for me to shadow him and I would take over as Chair or Trustees in September 2015. It was daunting, exciting and it was going to be a huge learning curve.
Was I the best person for the job on paper? Probably not. Was I the only trustee that stepped forward that would give it 100% and go above and beyond? The answer was yes. Decisions are made by those who show up – A wise man once said.
I Chaired my first board meeting in June 2015. I even went to a training course with the Institute of Directors about the role of the Chair, this was an eye-opening experience as I was the only volunteer / third sector body in the room, everyone else was there in a commercial capacity. I recall some excellent advice which was “a good Chair gets through the agenda like a hot knife through butter”. I wrote this at the top of the agenda for my first board meeting as Chair.
The meeting over ran by 40 minutes. Bugger. Must try harder.
Michael Buchanan passed away in October 2016 at the admirable age of 77 and the thing I admired about him immensily was that he always wore a shirt and tie. It reminded me of my own Grandfather and was a great discipline that is perhaps lost on later generations of the importance of how you present yourself at all times. A reminder that everything matters. At his funeral his son referred to him as ‘first class’ as it was one of Michaels favourite phrases. I thought he was first class and I am sad he didn’t get to Chair the board.
Sadly I attended another cancer related funeral that week for a friend of my wifes who died at the age of 33. It was inspiring and heartbreaking to hear the eulogy at each funeral, the difference of a long life, well lived surrounded by sons, daughters and grandchildren versus a life cut short inexplicably and young children too young to understand where mum was.
These events only made me more determined to ensure that the time I was dedicating to Cancer Support Scotland was going to be valuable and make a difference. Some weeks I spent no more than a few phone calls or a few e-mails on the volunteering role….and other weeks there were multiple meetings and days away from my business being involved in progressing the charity. We would always try to tally up the amount of volunteer hours from the trustees, but I guess the rule of ‘double it and add a zero’ would apply.
I am always in awe of the team in the centre how they effortlessly deliver such a high level of service yet under such demands. I hope they know how valuable they are to Cancer Support Scotland and how vital they are to those who come to the centre at their most vulnerable. They were an inspiration to me, I hope they know that. I always said my ‘pleases and thank yous’ and rarely took more than one biscuit.
My advice to anyone considering becoming a trustee is: Don’t do it for the good of your CV or what it looks like on LinkedIn. Do it for a charity that means something to you as I think it will be more rewarding, and do it to give something back in return for nothing but the feeling of doing good. There will be days when it will get on your tits, but if you know that your time and effort is making someones life a little better then its worth every minute, hour, day that you donate / give / invest.
After three years in the hot seat I am proud of the time I have been involved with Cancer Support Scotland, I hope Louise knows that I did it for her, for those like her and for those that don’t yet know they are going to need to be as strong as her. There were some incredibly difficult decisions, difficult days, difficult conversations but these were all taken with the counsel of the board and with the best intentions for the long term future of the charity in mind.
Any role of this importance isn’t going to be easy. There were also some great moments, some team victories, some good news stories and the satisfaction that our common goal was making a difference to those who came to us at their most vulnerable and asked for help.
In essence I got the warm fuzzy feeling.
So, in the word of one of my favourite TV characters… President Josiah Bartlet from the West Wing… “Whats Next”