Journalists’ thoughts on what makes an effective charity CEO

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Journalists’ thoughts on what makes an effective charity CEO

We've conducted some research with journalists who work with charities to see what they think makes for an effective charity CEO, and how your CEO could engage better with the press. Read about it in this week's blog.
Becca Thomas

Charity CEOs should provide clear leadership to deliver the mission, vision and values of the organisation they work for; and they are also well placed to be visible and powerful advocates for the cause their charity represents.

You may have read our blog looking at How to get your CEO to get good press for your charity published last year. We asked journalists who had recently covered third sector stories to name charity chief executives who they thought were effective, and crucially, to tell us why they thought so. Some key CEO behaviours journalists mentioned in their comments about CEOs who impressed them were:

  • How much the CEO is a visible advocate for their cause
  • The media savviness of the CEO
  • The availability and responsiveness of the CEO

We thought it would be interesting to ask journalists the same question again, and included it as part of the Autumn 2019 wave of our research with journalists.

In Autumn 2018, journalists named 67 charities and their respective CEOs as impressing them; in the most recent wave, this went up to 98! 19 of these were charities and CEO’s who had also been mentioned in Autumn 2018 - 79 were new mentions for Autumn 2019.

Would you like to find out if your charity and CEO have been mentioned as impressing journalists? Get in touch using this form; if they were, we’ll share the comments with you!

Themes and key comments from journalists in Autumn 2019

How well liked is your charity CEO?

Googling ‘how to be more likeable’ comes up with some interesting suggestions and a (surprisingly!) large number of articles; tips include ‘ask conversation starters’ and ‘listen first, then speak’[1]. It is unlikely that anyone who has risen to the echelons of chief executive-hood wouldn’t have already mastered such basic interpersonal skills (I hope…); however, some people possess a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ which can be hard to define, let alone teach. The following comments about charity CEOs highlight some qualities which journalists seem to like:

Comment about British Heart Foundation’s former CEO Simon Gillespie:

“Tough act to follow as the only CEO to win employees' choice award from Glassdoor after being voted one of top 50 CEOs in country.”

Freelance Journalist

Comments about Mind’s CEO Paul Farmer:

“Approachable, fairly high profile but down to earth.”

Sunday Express Journalist

“Engaging, campaigning, friendly.”

Metro Journalist

Comment about Queen’s Nursing Institute Chief Executive Dr Crystal Oldman CBE:

“An excellent networker, warm, approachable but expert and informed, meaning her charity punches above its weight.”

Nursing Times Journalist

Comment about Shelter Chief Executive Polly Neate:

“Eloquent, relatable voice with expert insight told in human language.”

HuffPost Journalist

What are your CEOs values – and do they extend beyond your charity’s cause?

Our Acting Head of Public Audiences Bijal Rama wrote a blog about leadership last week, highlighting the fact that “we often frame leadership as a skill people use in their career, rather than a constant lived experience.” She suggests that rather than following a traditional leadership model focusing on “specific skills, knowledge and abilities” exclusively, we should put more of an emphasis on “personal values, perspectives and behaviours.” The following comments from journalists commend charity CEOs who seem to be living their values, and in the case of Freedom Fund CEO Nick Grono, express them in unexpected places:

Comment about Freedom Fund CEO Nick Grono:

“Stumbled across him on a podcast intended for a youth audience - was a really good way to engage with young people.”

Freelance Journalist

Comment about ActionAid Chief Executive Girish Menon:

“He's been very proactive in creating a feminist culture at his organisation and ensuring it goes from the top down.”

Third Sector Journalist

Comment about Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan:

“Like the way he has started connected with South Asian media and celebrities. Barnardo’s is a great charity, but before him seemed disconnected from South Asians.”

Eastern Eye Newspaper Journalist

Small charity? How well does your CEO use social media?


Each time we’ve asked journalists to name CEO’s they consider effective, we’ve been surprised at the range of charities represented in their responses; their sizes and the causes they champion vary immensely. Some journalists praise CEO’s of smaller charities for punching above their weight through clever use of social media:

Comment about Cysters Founder Neelam Heera:

“She achieves an incredible amount with a voluntary organisation and carries on doing great work despite pressure from backwards attitudes. She has used social media really well by setting up support groups.”

Eastern Eye Newspaper Journalist

Comment about Refugee Action Chief Executive Stephen Hale:

“The charity has grown so rapidly from little more than a hashtag - but it's grown in a way that means it can be sustainable and effective, and has embraced innovative fundraising idea - I think that has a lot to do with Stephen Hale's leadership.”

Third Sector Journalist

What is your CEO’s communication style; and can they hold under pressure?

Whether it’s the way they respond to a hard line of questioning, or even just run-of-the-mill questions, effective communication is a big part of being a charity CEO (or any other kind of CEO!). 2019 was a year which saw a few charity controversies in the media, and some of the comments we received from journalists praised CEO’s for the way they responded to these. There were also some useful comments about communication in general:

Comment about RNLI Chief Executive Mark Dowie:

“Came out fighting in response to negative press coverage and was proactive about tough news.”

Third Sector Journalist

Comment about The Royal British Legion Director General Charles Byrne:

“Taking a stand on a potentially controversial issue and refusing to duck it.”

ITV Journalist

Comment about Guide Dogs Chief Executive Tom Wright:

“Communication across media seems really well integrated, which comes from the top of any organisation.”

Freelance Journalist

Comment about Age UK Charity Director Caroline Abrahams:

“Comments when it is necessary to do so - not on every minor aspect that affects her charity's work. Gets better coverage as a result.”

The i Newspaper Journalist

Don’t forget that you can get in touch with us to find out whether your charity and Chief Executive have been mentioned as impressing journalists using this form.

If you would like to find out more about our research with journalists on behalf of charity media teams, get in touch via, or give us a call on 020 7426 8888.

[1] 10 Ways to Become a Super-Likable Person, Entrepreneur Europe | (Accessed January 2019)

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