The new chief executive of Heart Research UK talks to David Adams about life, luck and the joys of working for a small but vital charity.
Kate Bratt-Farrar says, often, how lucky she has been in her life and career. Yet she may be living proof of the old adage that you make your own luck – and she has also suffered some very bad luck, in both her professional and personal life.
She grew up in Addingham, a large but picturesque village in West Yorkshire. When she was ten, her mother died of cancer, and she thinks this was the root cause of a period of bad behaviour that lasted several years, including “some issues with school attendance”. She says she feels very lucky that she was bright enough to do well at school anyway.
She then took a degree in Social Policy and Women’s Studies at the University of Bradford, which focused her social conscience. “By the third year of university I thought ‘I’m going to work in a women’s refuge’,” she says. In fact, after a short spell running a restaurant, she entered the civil service, working at the Department of Health, which had moved about half of its staff to Leeds in the late 1990s.
There she spent a year and a half working on child protection and public health policies, but it became clear that if she wanted to keep working on these subjects while rising through the ranks of the DoH she would need to work in London. By now she was married to her husband, John, who also worked in Leeds, and they had no desire to move south, to what they felt sure would be a lower quality of life and a higher cost of living. Instead, in 2003, Bratt-Farrar stayed in Leeds but moved into the charity sector, as a policy officer at Save the Children.
It was tough – “my husband likes to remind me that I cried quite a lot in the first year…” – but she thrived, focusing on child poverty and children excluded from education. Between 2007 and 2008 she was acting head of policy, research and communications at the charity, giving her valuable experience of running a team. “It was a great place to work. I was really lucky,” she says now.
But by 2008 she felt it was time to move on – and this time she and John did leave Yorkshire, moving to Carmarthen in South Wales, where she become head of research and education at Cerebra, which supports children with medical conditions related to the brain.
This was a much smaller charity, but one with a national reach and Bratt-Farrar was soon sitting in on board meetings and reporting to the chief executive. “It was a great two years: I learned so much.” But a return to Yorkshire to be closer to their families was always likely sooner or later. In 2010, Bratt-Farrar saw the job of chief executive at Leeds Women’s Aid advertised: an opportunity to lead an organisation that ran women’s refuges and other services across the city.
“I thought, ‘I haven’t got a chance’,” she says. “But I also thought, ‘give it a go – you never know’.” It was luck that the right opportunity had arisen at the right time, but her ability, rather than good fortune, ensured she was offered the job. What she didn’t know was that many of the refuge, outreach and children’s services the charity ran were about to come up for tendering. Just a few months into her tenure most of those contracts had been lost and Bratt-Farrar found herself leading a rebuilding process. It would last more than five years, but she and her determined, close-knit team would eventually win back all the contracts they had lost.
During this period she also experienced another personal tragedy: after getting pregnant for the first time, her baby daughter was stillborn. “You’ve experienced the most horrible thing in the world, but aside from the grief, it changed me as a person in some positive ways,” she says. “I came to think, if you don’t try stuff, what’s the point? The worst thing that could happen has already happened. I think that drove my leadership style.”
As well as leading the renewal of the organisation, Bratt-Farrar also helped to create Women’s Lives Leeds, a partnership of 11 organisations that supports at-risk women and girls in the city, which she then chaired for two years. She also served as a trustee for national Women’s Aid and for the Women’s Counselling and Therapy Service in Leeds.
Bratt-Farrar says there is a list of causes that are important to her for various reasons and in 2017 she had an opportunity to support another of them, when she was headhunted to become director of the Sue Ryder Wheatfields hospice in Leeds. “Because my mum had died of cancer it was on my list to contribute to the hospice movement,” she says. “They are amazing places.”
Taking the opportunity
She led the hospice for two years, helping to take its Care Quality Commission (CQC) assessment status from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’. It is a large organisation, with over 100 staff working alongside at least as many volunteers; and Bratt-Farrar also worked alongside the national senior management team at Sue Ryder. But she missed being a chief executive.
“That’s why I left sooner than I would have chosen – chief executive jobs of national charities do not come up often in Leeds.” In 2019 one such post did become available.
Bratt-Farrar admits that before applying to become its chief executive she knew very little about Heart Research UK. But since its formation in 1967, the charity has played a major role enabling research and medical advances into the prevention and treatment of heart disease and related conditions. It funded six of the first eight successful heart transplant operations and the first implantation of a permanent artificial heart.
It’s a small organisation, with only 25 staff, but distributes about £1.5 million in medical research grants each year. It has also developed resources designed to help people living with heart conditions or recovering from heart surgery, including Physical Activity Toolkits for adults and children. It runs masterclasses for surgeons, doctors, nurses and other health professionals; and through a partnership with Subway it offers Healthy Heart Grants of up to £10,000 to community projects all over the UK that promote a healthy heart and aim to prevent or reduce heart disease.
Still a new recruit, Bratt-Farrar is already full of pride for the range of work the organisation supports, for its “passionate and dedicated” staff and its ethos, based on a personal approach to every beneficiary and supporter.
“They want to grow, but in the right way,” she says. “Any changes and plans we make have to come from the voices of our staff, of our grant recipients and other stakeholders.”
Her top priority is the same as for any charity: securing a sustainable income. Unlike some other medical charities’ leaders she isn’t currently very concerned about Brexit having an adverse impact on the organisation – while still at Sue Ryder disruption to the supply of medication was a major worry – although she is wary of the uncertainty related to it: “We just don’t know how it may affect things: about the impact it may have on incomes, aside from anything else.”
Away from the office, she and John now live in Bingley, with their five year old twins, Daisy and Lily. Bratt-Farrar is also now a trustee at the Morrisons Foundation. She applied for the post in 2018, despite the foundation stating it was looking for individuals with experience of working in grant-giving organisations, which she, at that stage, lacked. But she contacted the organisation and pointed out that it might benefit from the insight that someone with extensive experience of working inside small organisations applying for grant funding would be able to offer. The trustees seem to have realised pretty quickly that she would be an asset to the board. One suspects that plenty of other people will reach the same conclusion, at Heart Research UK and elsewhere, in future.