Adeela Warley: Leading the charge

Adeela Warley, CEO of CharityComms, talks to David Adams about branding, amplifying voices and how charity comms teams can lead the way.


Has there ever have been a more important time to be working on charities’ communications strategies than now, in the digital era, during the Covid crisis? And if there is still anyone out there who doubts the commitment of communications professionals to the sector, then the life and work of Adeela Warley, CEO of the CharityComms network, should stand as a correction to that misconception.

Indeed, her career to date has been driven by her commitment to causes. It was also influenced, early on, by the example of her late parents. They emigrated from South Africa to the UK, where Warley was born, then moved to Uganda, where she spent her earliest years; then back to the UK, this time settling in south-east London.

Both worked for the NHS and were active in the anti-Apartheid movement. “My mother became a nurse, my father was the first doctor who qualified in his Malay community: they spent their lives in the service of health; and they were inspirational,” says Warley. “They were very supportive in wanting to help us achieve something worthwhile. I think that’s what’s guided me through my career – asking myself, do I care about this job; and can I make a difference?”

Warley took a degree in English and American literature at the University of Sussex in the early 1980s, then returned to London unsure of what to do next. She took a job working at Downham Library in Lewisham, which turned out to be another source of inspiration, working with a boss, Maureen Keane, who wanted to reinvent a rather staid library service. Warley ran children’s storytelling, theatre and other events, helping to turn the library into a genuine community hub. “That was my stepping stone to the not-forprofit sector,” she says.

Moving into comms

Her next steps followed her passions and Warley began to develop her communications expertise. She worked first for the antivivisection charity BUAV (now Cruelty Free International), on high-profile campaigns, including the Choose Cruelty Free campaign run with the Body Shop; before moving to a job that allowed her to contribute directly to a cause even closer to her heart, at Friends of the Earth.

“When I was at university I joined Greenpeace as a volunteer, concerned about threats to the natural world, so going to Friends of the Earth was an absolute dream job.” She worked there from 1989 until 2016, eventually becoming head of communications and working on campaigns including the Big Ask, which helped convince the UK government to make a legally-binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

In 2015, Warley also became a trustee for CharityComms. Friends of the Earth had been an early member of the network, created in 2007 by charity communications professionals seeking to share best practice and innovation. Trusteeship gave her new insights into charity governance and an opportunity to give something back to the sector. Then in 2017, she was offered the post of CEO.

Scaling up

Her priorities to date have been based around investing in the skills and scale of the CharityComms’ team (the organisation now has 13 employees) and the organisation’s capacity and capabilities, including a more dynamic online operation; and asking the members what they need from the network. There are now more than 8,000 individual members, working for over 700 charities of every shape and size.

Warley believes CharityComms deserves some credit for helping to bring about some positive change. “One of our ambitions is to improve the understanding and support that comms teams get from the centre and senior leadership teams and trustees – and on that I do think that things have moved in the right direction,” she says. She is also pleased to see a shift to put charities’ “audiences” at the heart of what they do, in response to the fact that in a digital world there are now more ways in which charities can “empower supporters and beneficiaries to lead”.

She is hugely proud of the way that CharityComms members and organisations across the sector have responded to the events of 2020 and 2021. Individual organisations she picks out include NHS Charities Together (“a phenomenal story of success”) and Blood Cancer UK, which decided to continue with a full relaunch of their brand in March 2020. “They realised their old brand was not helping people to engage with them or their services, so despite everything they pushed ahead [to build] … a clear and compelling brand that the people they serve, people who are in at-risk groups, could find quickly.”

Leading the way

She also highlights the role that communications has played in helping charities to address the issues brought to the surface by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement – including charities in the UK seeking to improve their own performance on diversity and inclusion.

“Our lens on this is: what’s the role of communicators in transforming brands, to really make them anti-racist and inclusive? Comms people are best placed to lead the charge, because we’re used to dealing with multiple stakeholders, we’re used to testing and trialling new approaches; and we lead in the language that charities use, and framing the stories we tell. [We can] … reflect on whether we’ve done that well, or whether actually, the language that we’ve adopted is not inclusive.”

Where things have gone wrong within the sector, Warley says there has been a shift from “very defensive PR that always tries to put the best face forward”, to “a more authentic type of communication, which is prepared to say: ‘yes, things have not gone as they should have done, we are going to change and here’s how’.” She sees this as being part of a broader process in which communications professionals have had to counter negative publicity related to fundraising, governance and misconduct scandals during recent years. She believes that good communications strategies, focused on audiences, can play a key role in helping the sector to tap into a clear appetite for doing good within society that has been visible throughout the pandemic.

“Yes, there’s a lot of anger and frustration that lots of things are wrong with society, but harnessing that desire to change the world is what charities do best, and I think there’s a whole new generation who want to tackle the greatest social problems,” she says. “Finding ways of communicating with them is going to be such an important part of comms and engagement strategies going forward.”

Warley’s own contributions to the sector were recognised in the 2021 New Year’s Honours list, with the award of an OBE for services to charity communications. “It all still seems a bit unreal,” she says. She felt some “personal anguish” about accepting the award and is among the supporters of the Excellence not Empire campaign – see www.excellencenotempire.

“I accepted the award because it felt like a wonderful recognition of the role communications play in driving social good,” she says.

Outside work, she lives in Catford, south-east London, with her partner Paul – who works for Friends of the Earth (they met when they were both volunteering for Greenpace in the 1980s) – and a ginger and white cat, Roli. She and Paul devote as much time as possible to gardening: “We have a wild, exotic garden, with palm trees and Chilean bellflowers, things like that; and Paul grows lots of vegetables in the garden.”

Hearing her talk about the garden makes you want to pop round to admire their handiwork. You suspect it has been created with the same care, passion and patience that has helped Warley to achieve so much during her career to date – although she is self-deprecating about the course it has taken. “My journey has been opportunistic: through encouragement from others I’ve had opportunities come my way and I’ve been able to take them,” she says. But she is now helping to encourage other communications professionals across the sector to make the most of the opportunities they encounter – and by doing so to make vital contributions towards the causes to which they and their colleagues are dedicated.

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