When Sue Davie joined Meningitis Trust from the private sector in 2002, it was the fulfilment of an ambition to work in civil society before the age of 40.
Elevated to chief executive from finance director in 2007, Davie has since overseen the 2013 merger with Meningitis UK which resulted in the new organisation - Meningitis Now. The merged organisation went on to formulate and implement a five-year strategy which has seen it notch some major achievements.
Davie says the charity exists to save lives and rebuild futures. With a disease as complex as meningitis, this can mean a lot of things and Meningitis Now’s work necessarily changes over time as a result.
Education, research, and a wide range of support services for those affected by meningitis all fall within the charity’s brief.
Most recently it has been pursuing a campaign to persuade the Government to make a meningitis B vaccine available for free to all new born babies.
The campaign saw the charity win Campaigning Team of the Year at the 2014 Charity Times Awards, but it is yet to achieve its final goal (at press time the vaccine had been approved subject to agreement of cost effective pricing) and Meningitis Now continues to push the issue.
Stroud-based Meningitis Now employs about 60 staff, and calls upon the support of around 500 volunteers. Almost completely reliant on donations for its income, Meningitis Now raised just under £3.4m in the year to March 2014.
Asked what the key challenge facing the organisation is, Davie is quick to name shoring up income as one of the top items on the agenda. The charity relies on donations for all of its funding, and Davie says this makes life difficult in the current environment as local authority contracts dry up and more organisations move into the fundraising space.
“I don’t shy away from saying, ‘yes it’s tough’. It’s tough for the small to mid-size charities of which we’re one,” Davie says. “Being dependent on voluntary donations, so much of it is about relationships. Whether that be big corporate type relationships or whether it’s with someone who’s giving you two or three pounds a month.”
And it is not getting any easier. In a common sector refrain, Davie says the austere age in which we live has made it harder to raise the funds necessary to continue providing Meningitis Now’s services.
But it is not just the difficult times that create challenges for Meningitis Now. Davie says the nature of the organisation’s purpose makes it a harder sell than some of the bigger health charities.
“The added challenge for us is we’re a single disease charity where the ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business. Meningitis is far more complex than I ever knew before I joined, where there’s multiple types and every time we’re successful in getting a vaccine developed or introduced people think the problem’s sorted; but that’s actually just one type of disease,” Davie says. “You say ‘meningitis’ to most people and they get that because it’s scary. As soon as you start talking about meningococcal, pneumococcal that’s it - you’ve lost the general public.”
But Davie is not deterred by the challenges facing the charity, Meningitis Now has been thinking outside the box since its strategic review almost five years ago.
Meningitis Now values the relationships and networks it has been able to build, and leverages them to help it achieve its goals. The charity launched its Brighter Futures partnership programme in December, offering corporates a range of different levels of involvement with the charity.
“It’s an engaged partnership so it isn’t just about the money – it’s also about corporates helping us to raise awareness and using their contacts,” Davie says. “It’s a way of enabling organisations to truly engage on a partnership basis. So, how can we benefit their business while at the same time they’re benefitting our charity? Shared skills, opportunities to get exposed to other people, us developing a network – that kind of thing.”
Conventional ‘charity of the year’ type partnerships are unlikely to work for Meningitis Now, Davie says, as when arrangements like that are put to a staff vote they tend to go to larger charities representing more high profile causes.
Also, the Brighter Futures partnerships are in line with Meningitis Now’s scale, and can be a good fit with its nationwide community-level approach.
“Because we’ve got a community team around the country this works for a smaller local business as well. It’s not a case of ‘here’s the list of the big national corporates’; it’s about people engaging at community level,” Davie says.
The value placed on relationships extends to communicating with other charities. Davie says Meningitis Now looks at where other organisations have enjoyed success and seeks to learn from them, and is happy to work with other charities where there is “a benefit to the people we exist for”.
“I think there’s a real caution from charities about doing that,” Davie says. “There’s this wariness. At the end of the day we do all compete for the pound, but there are some things we can help each other on which truly are not competitive.”
Partnerships and networks are a recurring theme when talking to Davie about Meningitis Now’s work. And these elements were to the fore in the charity’s award-winning campaign for introduction of the meningitis B vaccine.
The focus on campaigning was one result of the charity’s five-year strategy.
“We went out to families and supporters and the big thing that they felt we weren’t doing that we should be was campaigning.”
The charity is committed to pushing for the introduction of licensed vaccines as soon as they become available. When a vaccine for meningitis B, the biggest infectious killer of under-fives, was licensed for use in Europe in 2013 Meningitis Now began the push for the Government to buy it and make it freely available for all newborns.
The campaign involved regional and national placement of case studies, alongside a digital campaign using shareable content, powerful images, infographics, video updates, and Thunderclaps. The charity focussed on key milestones in the government decision-making process, held three Westminster events, and met with the Secretary of State for Health, Shadow Ministers, Lords and Special Advisors.
It has been Meningitis Now’s first major campaign, and has seen the charity learn a lot along the way. Davie says one of the key things the organisation has taken out of the process so far is the power of social media, in particular for a charity that cannot call on a large budget.
“The ability for an organisation such as ours to garner support via social media - it’s such a cost effective way to do it,” Davie says. “We’ve only had a positive experience with social media. The power of having people support you whether it be to retweet messages or share things is significant.
“That has let us reach a much bigger audience than we would ever have hoped to.”
Naturally there was a significant public affairs component to the campaign, something that was also a learning curve for Meningitis Now. Ensuring the charity built support across the political spectrum was a key element, as was striking the balance between maintaining regular contact without harassing MPs.
“For us it doesn’t matter which party is in power. The colour of politics doesn’t make any difference to something like this,” Davie says. “Building relationships across politics demonstrates that party politics doesn’t matter, and also ensures Meningitis Now’s voice is heard across them all.”
Politicians were provided with useful materials including draft press releases, which resulted in exposure throughout constituencies alongside the national impact of social media.
Apart from some invaluable pro-bono support from PR agency Just::Health, the charity did all of the work on the campaign itself.
“One of the biggest things is belief in what you’re campaigning for. Most of it is common sense. We’ve been approached by lots of public affairs agencies wanting to work with us, but they’re not saying anything that we haven’t tried or got. That to me is therefore not the right use of our funds.”
The Lobbying Act is of course a consideration when dealing with campaigns that reach the world of politics. And, in an election where health issues are a particularly hot topic a charity could see an opportunity to increase exposure through politicising the issue.
However, Davie says this would be counterproductive and in any case the non-partisan nature of the cause means Meningitis Now is in little danger of falling foul of the legislation.
“I could go to town, and go to Andy Burnham and arm him with a whole lot of party political stuff and play a political game, but actually that’s not going to help. Is it the Lobbying Act that’s stopping me, or the sense that that’s not what’s right for the campaign? Probably the latter, but you’re conscious of the former.”
Now around 13 years into her charity career, Davie is in no doubt as to whether she made the right move in leaving the private sector. She was the first employee at what was then Meningitis Trust to join from the private sector.
“This is the only charity I’ve ever worked for – I didn’t have any expectation when I joined and I didn’t know if it would work for me or the charity.”
There are a variety of ways in which civil society differs from the private sphere, but Davie dismisses any suggestion that there is less pressure in working for a charity.
“The stresses are almost more for me in the role I’m in now than they ever were in the commercial sector because it feels personal. If I don’t make sure we do what we should be doing and are there for people it feels like I’m letting people down.”
Dedication to those who benefit from the charity is demonstrated by how frequently Davie talks about “the people we exist for”. But the ‘people’ focus extends to the operation of the charity itself. Indeed, the opportunity to develop people was one of the things that attracted Davie to the sector.
Davie says it is now a very different organisation to the one she originally joined, but it will continue to improve. Whilst the charity aims to “put itself out of business”, even if vaccines could be developed and rolled out for all types of meningitis, the organisation wants to always be there for those who have suffered with the illness.
Next year will be a special one for the charity, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary. It will also be an important period as Meningitis Now reaches out to its supporters and service users to get the feedback that will shape its strategy and outlook for the next five years.
Davie says the charity is committed to ensuring it changes with people’s needs. And there is the sense she will enjoy the job of driving it along.
“I was lucky, I was part of the Dixons stores group and part of the team that set up Freeserve, the first free ISP. I was on that real bubble of creating some of that internet demand in the UK so it was very exciting times, huge opportunities.
“I look back on that and think ‘that was amazing and I’m really glad I was part of it’, but I still didn’t get the personal return from it that I do now.”