Welcome to Leadership Worth Sharing, a podcast in which ACEVO chief executive Vicky Browning talks to civil society CEOs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.
In this episode, Vicky speaks with Adeela Warley, CEO of CharityComms, the membership body for communications professionals in the charity sector. Adeela talks about why civil society leaders should listen to their comms colleagues, the positives and challenges of creating a collaborative campaign and why things should not go back to business as usual when we get out of the other side of the pandemic.
Scroll down for the full transcription of the episode.
Listen to your communications teams, give them some time and listen, really listen to what they have to say, because they have their finger on the pulse of your audiences, of the people that you need to engage to achieve your mission.Adeela Warley, CharityComms CEO
Vicky Browning (00:00):
Hi, I’m Vicky Browning chief executive of ACEVO, the network for charity and civil society leaders. Welcome to Leadership worth sharing, a podcast in which I talk to civil society chief execs about their careers, their experiences and what leadership means to them.
Today I’m speaking to Adeela Warley, CEO of CharityComms, the membership body for communications professionals in the charity sector. Adeela talks about why civil society leaders should listen to their comms colleagues, the positives and challenges of creating a collaborative campaign and why things should not go back to business as usual when we get out of the other side of the pandemic.
So welcome. Adeela. It’s lovely to see you. I’m here with Adeela Warley, she is the chief executive of CharityComms the network for comms professionals in our sector. It’s lovely to see you. We’re on, we’re on zoom. Tell me about where you are. You’re in your front room.
Adeela Warley (00:16):
I’m in my front room. This is where I live these days, Vicky. This is my, my office. It’s also my Pilates studio and my DVD viewing room. So yeah, it’s everything to me now.
Vicky Browning (00:30):
Everything happens there. Fantastic. And just, just in case, you’re listening later on, we’re still in, well we… Actually we’re not in lockdown anymore, are we? But we’re not, we’re still very much working from home as a rule and not going into the office. So we’re recording this on zoom and and seeing each other through the delights of modern technology. Adeela tell me, first of all, little bit about CharityComms. Just talk me through what CharityComms is and does.
Adeela Warley (00:58):
Yep. So I think you kind of captured it at the front of this conversation, which is that we’re the membership organization for charity communications professionals. And what we do is we champion best practice across the sector and our model is peer to peer learning. So it’s very much about sharing your experience, your skills, your aspirations, your fears, so that other people can learn alongside you. So that’s what we do and I’ve not really come across anything quite like our network. And there’s never really been a more important time for charities to be really communicating effectively and with conviction and impact. So yeah, we’re, we’re, I think we’re right in the heart of what everyone’s going through right now.
Vicky Browning (01:45):
Absolutely. And in in April you did some research into the impact of the pandemic on charity communications, didn’t you. And I think with the Media Trust and you said that, I think something like 90, 98% of people were concerned about comms during this crisis, only 2% weren’t.
Adeela Warley (02:04):
Vicky Browning (02:04):
What is it in particular that people are concerned about as we are in the middle of this global pandemic? What is it, how is it, what kind of impact is that having on charity communications?
Adeela Warley (02:16):
I mean, we’re really delighted to team up with the Media Trust. And I think collaboration and partnership is going to be very much part of our model. And we wanted to survey their members and our members too, about what, what the biggest challenges were as comms people, what were they really facing? And the kind of three top challenges were how certainly in the early days of lockdown was how to support beneficiaries who normally would have had, they would have had access to face to face, and then not surprisingly how to produce digital content, all sorts of digital content, whether that’s films or vlogs or infographics, how do you do that, and how to move all those services that you would have done in the real world into the digital space? I think what was really striking from that piece of research was that 20% of respondents didn’t know what resources were available and that felt like a massive own goal.
Adeela Warley (03:14):
And it was something that, you know, we knew that we had to put right. And I know that both the Media Trust and CharityComms have subsequently worked incredibly hard to make our, to surface all that incredible content guides tools, templates, so that charities could really harness that wealth of information to make a difference. And they also identified the desire for pro bono volunteer support to help them do digital better. Because we know that there’s a massive digital divide. There are some charities who’ve got whole departments and teams devoted to digital, and there are others who are very much in their early days of scaling up to digital activity. So yeah, getting some pro bono help with that and also help with telling their stories, getting their stories out into the media, so that, that, so that people could see that they hadn’t gone away and that they were really making a difference. So those were some of the findings. And in fact, we’re thinking of getting back into that partnership and drilling down into the research, cause a lot has happened since that very early stage. And we want to understand that better and develop programs and products that really meet our members’ needs.
Vicky Browning (04:28):
Yeah. And I think that speaks to something that’s quite central to what CharityComms was all about, which is the idea that comes within our organizations are not just us talking about what we do. They, they are what we do. You’re, you’re talking about engaging with the people we serve in a different way. And that kind of (inaudible) is, is, is actually part of or, you know, core parts of the, of the delivery of services for a lot of charities. Are you sort of seeing that recognition of comms as a kind of strategic driver within charities? And it’s something, that’s something that CharityComms really advocates, but are you starting to see a shift in that? Is that something that particular chief execs are, are increasingly recognizing or is there still more to do on that?
Adeela Warley (05:09):
So you won’t be surprised that I say that there is more to do Vicky. So one of the things that we we’ve done is to produce a comms benchmark, which is a piece of work that really takes the temperature on where comms professionals and their organizations are at. And it looks at how comms people feel about their status within their organizations, how they feel they’re perceived by their peers whether their work is understood and valued, the level of engagement and understanding that their CEO has and their senior management team have about communications work. And whether they’re represented at the top table, what the trends in those in the benchmark show is that they are moving in the right direction. There is positive change there, but there is still much more to do. And I think the current crisis is really putting charity communications teams under pressure almost as never before.
Adeela Warley (06:06):
And that is both that has both been a positive and a negative. So positive in that a lot of organizations are suddenly realizing how important comms is, you know, whether that’s internal comms, keeping every, every stakeholder on board from trustees to donors to supporters to staff. And also the demand that we’ve talked about already, which is for digital expertise. Everybody wants access to our digital channels. Everybody wants a new product or service in the digital sphere. So that’s been both nice, nice to have suddenly to be the most wanted thing. But it’s also a challenge because it’s often had to be done at speed in the crisis with less resource that there are ups and downs there. And I, I fear, I fear that, you know, we only have to every day when I sit down here and log on and I get my, my alerts from Third Sector and I see more depressing news about charities having to restructure and lose staff, I fear that comms will be also impacted and a victim of that change. And that will lose some of the, those positive steps that we’ve made that will have fewer comms staff with our expertise and maybe lose some of that strategic influence in our organization. And that would be a really retrogressive thing. I think we have to guard against that.
Vicky Browning (07:26):
So I obviously run a membership organization and you run a membership organization. And my members are chief executives of charities and yours are comms professionals at charities. What do you want to say to my members on behalf of your members to try and counter some of that, that danger that you were talking about there?
Adeela Warley (07:43):
I think firstly I’d want to say listen to your communications teams, give them some time and listen, really listen to what they have to say, because they have their finger on the pulse of your audiences, of the people that you need to engage to achieve your mission. I think encourage them and support them to make the case for investment. Comms teams can do that really well. It’s maybe not as, not as tangible as a fundraising sometimes, but there are still massive benefits and deliverables from having a really strong communications team who can build a brand that engages and garners loyalty and action for change. So really, really important to do that. And then I’d also say, think about your, your trustees, encourage your board to recruit people who understand the strategic value of comms and have them on your board so that they can be powerful advocates for your comms team, but also that they can challenge that comms team to say, okay, show us, show us the difference you’re making, demonstrate the impact. And if you can do that and work with us, we’ll invest in comms. And so I think listening to your teams, encouraging them to approach you for more support and recruiting some senior level people in your organization because ultimately trustees are the ones who set strategy and communications has to be at the heart of every charity. It’s not an add on, it’s not a nice to have, it’s not the window dressing, it’s fundamental to change and to achieving your mission.
Vicky Browning (09:22):
Just in, in terms of your kind of career path and how you’ve progressed. You’ve I suppose, effectively gone from being a CharityComms member to being an ACEVO member.
Adeela Warley (09:32):
Vicky Browning (09:35):
You’re originally a comms professional yourself before you took the chief exec role at CharityComms. So just tell me a little bit about how you got that role at CharityComms, where you’ve been and what your background is.
Adeela Warley (09:46):
I started out after I left university and kind of fluffing around, not really knowing what I wanted to do. I went back to one of my passions, I’d actually done a summer jobs actually. And which was working in libraries. I went, I went to work for Lewisham library and that kind of had a dual impact on me. One, the power of learning and the power of communications and books to change people’s lives, which is something that’s still very dear to my heart, but it also taught me about community engagement and libraries had only…. And there’s still goodness knows under enormous pressure, but they’ve only survived because of they’ve made themselves relevant and they’ve gone out and become part of thriving communities and hubs for social interaction. And for me as a children’s librarian, you know, I was able to do outreach work with children’s groups. I brought theater into the library and street football in the, in the library carpark. It was just revelationary. And for me, that was one of my best bosses. She gave me every opportunity to learn and to experiment and from there… And I learned a lot about how local authorities work and that’s really valuable information. And more than that, how trade unions work. Cause that was my first kind of trade union experience. And from there, I went to work for a an animal anti vivisection charity, which was really a learning, a massive learning curve for me, working on very controversial campaigns around medical research and the use of animals to much more sort of consumer friendly campaigns like choose cruelty-free, which we ran in partnership with the Body Shop, but it taught me a lot. And then I spent over 20 years working with Friends of the Earth the environmental campaigning organization, working on everything from safer chemicals in the homes that the children and families were safe, obviously saving the rainforest, which is still there.
Adeela Warley (11:39):
Of course, we have to keep that campaign going working on global climate change. And then just before I left really working on the, saving UK pollinators, the British bee, so, so vital. So I learned a lot there. And while I was at CharityComms (editor’s note: she meant to say Friends of the Earth), my then boss, you see, my bosses have been very formative. Said, you, you, you would make a great trustee, Adeela. And so he said, come on, go for it. So I was actually elected by the CharityComms membership to join the trustee board. And that was fantastic for me because I feel like I’ve lived the CharityComms experience. They’ve kind of been with me every step of my career providing me with the support and inspiration to do, to do more and better. And so I stepped down from the board and became charity, chief executive of CharityComms in 2017. And that was the 10th anniversary year. So I felt a huge amount of responsibility thinking about what does the next 10 years of CharityComms look like. And what role can I play building on, on your legacy, Vicky!
Vicky Browning (12:42):
Yeah, I was going to say it was about time somebody took over that knew what they were doing at that organization. What do you think were the kind of key things you learned moving from being… I mean, Friends of the Earth, you were on the senior team, you were a senior leader for a long time, and making that step up into the the chief exec role. What, what were the sort of key things that you, that you learned or that maybe you hadn’t realized you needed to know?
Adeela Warley (13:06):
Oh, goodness me so much, Vicky, so much. I think from having, from, from having left an organization where there was a huge amount of support around me, a senior team, I had a whole department I had fantastic teams and, and lots of other departments that did everything, that looked after HR, that looked after finances. And IT, you know, suddenly to go into a team, which I think was probably seven or eight people.
Vicky Browning (13:37):
It’s all you then. I remember you looking around, you’re going, who’s doing the marketing. Oh, that’ll be me. Who does the payroll. Oh, that’s me. Who’s doing the finance. Oh, that’s me too. It is quite a big shock. Isn’t it?
Adeela Warley (13:46):
It is. It is a big shock. I think it really is. So it’s all of that stuff. It’s the kind of day to day operational responsibility, plus the setting, the vision and direction and learning about governance, good governance and what that looks like. I think all of that was a big shock and I, I was really struck actually by something my ACEVO mentor said to me when I, I started working with him and he, we, we talked a bit about my background and my motivation. It was a bit of a showstopper because he actually said, okay, so you, you didn’t move to this job because you wanted to be CEO. You moved because of what CharityComms does. You’re a comms person. Yes. I, and I suddenly thought, Oh my goodness, have I made the wrong decision? Because I don’t think I ever set out saying, I must be a CEO. For me, it was a combination of the organization. What it does, something I absolutely passionately care about. And the leadership side of it, I did want a new challenge. I wanted to learn. It was, it was both of those opportunities that came together in the role. So I’m not sure I’m a serial CEO, but I am definitely passionate about being the CEO of CharityComms.
Vicky Browning (14:56):
Just in terms of kind of advice that you’ve received then. Would that have been, that sounds like quite a sort of formative piece of advice, which made you kind of rethink or realize perhaps that your heart was cause and it’s kind of cause and function related rather than status related. Would that be, is that, was that what it means? I mean, is that the best piece of advice you’ve had in stepping into a leadership role? Or have you had other, other pieces of advice from other people that…
Adeela Warley (15:22):
Ok, this is going to sound like you paid me to say this, but you did get, you gave me a really good piece of advice.
Vicky Browning (15:28):
Excellent. Excellent. I didn’t know you were going to say that and I’m really glad you did. What was it?
Adeela Warley (15:34):
Well, you’ve given me lots of great advice, but one thing that really, really has stuck with me is that you said one thing you learned was that you invested quite a lot of time when you started the role in building the relationships with your trustees and with your team. But you realize that you should have started much sooner building your peer to peer networks, other CEOs, and, and creating that safe space, where you can really talk to others about what you’re going through. Have they been through it before? What can you learn from them? And just the solidarity because I know people say it all the time, but it is true. Being a CEO can be quite lonely. And if you don’t have those places to go and those people to talk to, it can be really, really tough. So that’s one, the other piece of advice also came from someone involved with CharityComms who was on the CharityComms board and that’s Gail Scott-Spicer.
Adeela Warley (16:29):
And she really, we run, we run a programme for called Stepping into Leadership. And it’s for people who want to go from a head of head over a director role into a leadership role. And we invite CEOs to come and share their leadership journeys with us. And one of the things that she said was you need to get out of your comfort zone. And if people offer you opportunities that your first instinct is to think, Oh no, actually push yourself to do that. You know, I’m quite a risk averse person. So that was kind of like, Oh, okay. It stayed with me. And I, I do try and do that more than I have ever done. And I think as leaders, it’s important to do that. So yeah. Two pieces, golden pieces of advice that I hear often in my head.
Vicky Browning (17:16):
And how would you define your leadership style then if you were doing 360 and you asked your team to say what’s, what kind of leader is Adeela? What would you think their response would be? Or how do you see yourself as a leader?
Adeela Warley (17:27):
Yeah. I mean, this is always a difficult one because as you say, it’s really about how, how other people perceive your leadership, how they experience your leadership, I think, and I hope that I’m collaborative. So I really enjoy and value working with other people. And I genuinely believe that good ideas come from everywhere and that my ears should be open to that. I hope I practice that with my team, but also outside the sector. And we might talk a bit more about what’s going on in the sector and what I’ve been doing with others. I believe in the power of collaboration, it’s not easy. In fact, it can be incredibly painful and quite slow. But it’s still, when you get it right, it’s really worth doing. And then I think thoughtful, I like to reflect and I you know, I like to listen to what others have to say and then, and then weigh things in the balance and then make a decision and, and move things forward. So I think probably those words I would hope to hear back.
Vicky Browning (18:27):
It does lead me nicely into the question of collaboration. So you and I are both part of a kind of broader infrastructure, loose coalition, or certainly partnership collaboration of infrastructure bodies that have come together, particularly at this really challenging time for our country and our sector to lobby, to influence, to share intelligence, to, to support each other, to shout at each other, to do things that all collaborations end up doing. Out of that has come a cross sector campaign, the Never More Needed campaign. And you as the kind of comms guru in the, in the mix, not just through your role at CharityComms, but also your background, you’ve been leading on that piece of work. Can you just talk me through what the Never More Needed campaign is?
Adeela Warley (19:11):
Certainly. Well, maybe just go back a little bit, which is to say that as we’ve been talking about together today, Vicky, the charity sector has responded to the urgent needs of people right across the country really quickly, really effectively. And without question and, and in doing so at a time when it was hugely difficult to garner, to do business as usual, to garner support, to fundraise, and many of them have put their own survival on the line to do that. And early on in, in the crisis the sector came together and ran Everyday Counts as a campaign. And it secured a financial package from the government, which is, which is a really significant achievement. And I don’t think we should dismiss that. However, we know that that is nowhere near enough to safeguard the essential services and support that the voluntary sector and charities provide to people’s lives so that the Never More Needed campaign is designed to make a powerful case for support and to help people champion the things that they rely on, that they absolutely need to live their lives and that they care about passionately and giving them the means, the tools to take that message loud and clear into the corridors of power. So that’s what Never More Needed is about.
Vicky Browning (20:30):
So I think that the campaign is, is moving up a gear at the moment, we are moving into a new stage. What, what does that new stage look like?
Adeela Warley (20:38):
I think that new stage is about engaging engaging our organizations. So CEO’s really championing the campaign to their professional communications staff, their digital teams, all of those, but more broadly to their supporters, their beneficiaries, their trustees, and to give them a means to, to have a voice. So that’s really what I would be asking of them is to make… We’re producing a campaign pack, which will have all, everything that you need to write letters to, to treasury lobby your local MP, place stories in the media so that we can absolutely show this government that people care. And they depend on these services and the charities and the voluntary sector need to survive and thrive in order to not just be part of emergency response, but actually be part of the partnership with government in actually delivering a stronger, better social fabric. Um so that’s what I would ask people to do is get involved and engage and energize your own networks.
Vicky Browning (21:46):
And the ultimate goal of this or the ultimate audience is the government. We want to make sure that government understands the value of the, all the brilliant things that the sector does and how important that is in the recovery and the, and the sort of mechanism for that is to galvanize public spirit and noise, I suppose, to, to, to say yes, as a, as a society, we think that what the charity sector does for us and our communities is really important. And we want, we want you as the government to hear it. So that it’s a sort of two steps, isn’t it?
Adeela Warley (22:20):
Vicky Browning (22:20):
Yeah. So we want, so, so in terms of the infrastructure bodies or the campaign people leading the campaign, it’s engaging our sector to engage their audiences, to engage the government.
Adeela Warley (22:32):
In a nutshell, you’ve got the job.
Vicky Browning (22:37):
I’m a hundred percent behind it. We talked about, collaboration is, is difficult. And I know that we’ve sometimes having partnerships, particularly across the broad range of different organizations with different audiences and different approaches to campaigning is, is tricky just to kind of keep everybody aligned and moving forward. But I have found it incredibly powerful to be working alongside so many other great organizations with a kind of common purpose, have you felt that as well?
Adeela Warley (23:07):
Very much so. I feel like I’ve gone on a massive learning curve. A lot of the people who I’m working with now, I knew, but I didn’t know as well as I do now. And moving closer to their organizations, understanding what they’re trying to achieve in the world. And understanding also for me, it’s been really interesting to see how we work with government. Um you know, how we engage with select committees, how we do the policy and public affairs work. It’s been, you know, it’s another inside track to how change happens. So I found it a very enriching experience and although it does feel a bit like trying to do two jobs at once because I, you know, CharityComms is a charity and it’s got its challenges. We need to survive for the future too. And I have a team that I need to support and they’ve been absolutely remarkable, but the sector job is important too. And it’s part of what CharityComms is there to do. We are campaigning in many ways. We’re a campaigning organization for the role of comms. So it’s been tiring, but it’s been absolutely vital.
Vicky Browning (24:11):
I mentioned the, the recovery or the, you know, the next phase for the, for our society, I suppose, what are the things that have changed at CharityComms and perhaps in the way you operate and work together and deliver for your members, what are the things that you will want to keep, or as we move into the next, whatever, the next bit of all of this looks like?
Adeela Warley (24:31):
I mean, lots of things. I think the sense of urgency really helped us to accelerate our plans and to innovate and take risks and to test and learn as we go along. So that whole shift to digital and online events, for example, you know, we run over 70 events every year and until March, they were all done face to face in the physical world and to suddenly have to reinvent that entire program online has been an imperative, but also a really good thing in lots of ways. So I think that that ability to work at speed and to experiment is really important. I think the other thing we’ve learned is the need to find multiple ways to constantly listen to our supporters rather than, you know, I don’t know, an annual survey for example, or annual benchmarks. So we have to be absolutely on the pulse week to week. And we have created the digital spaces have created lots of opportunities to do that because we don’t have to physically convene people to do it. You know, they are there and they sadly, they’ve been trapped in their homes many months as well. So it’s actually been easier to access people. And I think that ability to listen and learn and respond as a membership organization, we have to keep those ways of working as we go forward. As a team, obviously working remotely like many, many other teams across the country has had its pluses and minuses. I’ve absolutely felt so concerned about my team. Many of whom are parents, they’re trying to do parenting looking after members of their family, not always having an ideal space, you know, not a quiet space, an office where they can do their work. There are, there are real challenges, but at the same time, we seem to have come closer as a team, more closer than we would have been if we were working in a physical space, we’ve learned about each other in the same way that you and I are looking at each other in our homes, we’ve been looking into our homes and you see people’s children, you see their partners, you see their cats, you see everything. And it, somehow it makes it all somewhat more human and personal. And we’ve done lots of things to kind of those water cooler or around the kettle in the kitchen that we couldn’t do. We’ve done in the digital space. And we’ve had a weekly creative challenge and we’ve done everything from sharing our childhood photos to baking, to sharing our inspirational quotes that have led, you know, being a guiding light in our lives, making up creative emoji song titles for our autumn quiz. So everything, every week we have some kind of social interaction and that’s been really important. And I think we just feel closer as a team. And there are lots of things about the ways that we’ve worked, that we want to carry forward. And in all honesty, I don’t think we’ll be going back to business as usual to how it was. We will always have a much more flexible and probably remote combination of remote working because I think that’s made us more efficient and actually more effective and more responsive to our members. And it’s been exciting, but also exhausting.
Vicky Browning (27:41):
I was going to come on to that because you talked about how recognizing a sense of urgency and working at pace and getting, you know, accelerating and all of that I think is, is great. And it’s certainly something I recognize absolutely from things at ACEVO, but equally I remember one of our partners in the collaboration Carol Mack ACF saying the trouble is we’re sprinting a marathon. And what are your thoughts about how you balance that kind of speed and pace with actually the fact that we can’t necessarily as individuals or as organizations keep our foot on the gas pedal to that extent without without burning out.
Adeela Warley (28:14):
Oh gosh, if my team listened to this podcast, their ears will be pricked up because I’m not sure how well I’ve done that. I, I’m not sure I’ve done enough yet to take the foot off the accelerator and permission them to take a step back. I really want to, it’s partly why we’re all taking, you know the last week of August off and just closing the office because we need to step back from the work and it’s been relentless. And I think we are entering a new phase. You know, you kind of go through the crisis phase and then you get over that hump. And then there’s a bit of a slump where you all think good grief. I can’t go on. And then you build a, you build up again and then it feels too much. And I think it’s really more than timely to step back and say, what have we learned? What do we genuinely need to prioritize and go for quality rather than quantity. And almost like pick a couple of things that we know we can do really well, that are relevant and timely and focus on those. Again, coming back to one of my ACEVO mentor, one of the things that he tried to help me with was this a challenge for leaders around phasing work, planning work over longer horizons, not just months but years actually. There’s a real temptation I think particularly when, when I started was that I wanted, I wanted to do everything at once. And I suddenly realized, I remember kind of slightly dreading my CEOs in the past kind of going Adeela I’ve been thinking about this thing, and we should do it, you know, that, that desire to open lots of doors and do more stuff. I think being realistic about what’s possible and wringing your team and your organization with you.
Vicky Browning (29:53):
Yeah. And I think there’s also something when you’re talking about listening, there’s also something about important, for us as leaders, listening to our own teams and recognize them, and I’m the same as you. I’m a, I’m a terror. Oh, we can do this so we can do this and we can do it all tomorrow and actually recognizing the reality of resource and capacity and, and listening to the team members that say we could, or we could find some of these things. And, and actually that, that sort of sense of, of, of leadership is as again, it’s a collaboration between you and the team.
Adeela Warley (30:24):
Vicky Browning (30:26):
Adeela, thank you so much for joining us todayon the ACEVO podcast, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and and all power to Never More Needed elbow, because I think I genuinely think as, as a sector, as charities and that’s what we do, we genuinely are Never More Needed. And so let’s get out there and and, and make some noise.
Adeela Warley (30:46):
Absolutely, totally agree with that. And I’ll be on that journey with you, Vicky.
Vicky Browning (30:50):
This was Leadership Worth Sharing, the podcast by and for civil society leaders. Thanks for listening and we’ll meet again in a few weeks! If you want to know more about ACEVO, check our website acevo.org.uk (that’s a c e v o dot org dot uk) and follow us on Twitter, twitter dot com slash acevo. Bye!