Interview: Kay Boycott on why being a charity chief is 'a bit like parenting'

Kay Boycott, the CEO of Asthma UK talks to David Adams about her journey to success, the necessary role of digital and why being a chief executive is like the ‘messy but wonderful world’ of parenting.


For many people, asthma may seem less threatening than any number of other diseases and medical conditions, but those of us who suffer from it – about 5.4 million people in the UK, roughly one in 12 of us – know how dangerous the condition can be. Those, like me, whose asthma is mild and well-controlled, are ever-grateful we are not among the severe sufferers, for whom it is a constant, serious threat; and whose lives could be transformed by more effective treatments.

“It’s a condition that shouldn’t ever be the most important thing in someone’s life, but if they don’t get access to treatment, or new treatments don’t come along, then it will become the most important thing in their life,” says Kay Boycott, who has been chief executive of Asthma UK for the past five and a half years.

The resources the charity has to help fund research into new treatments and to provide sufferers with information and support are reasonable by the standards of the third sector, but meagre compared with those of higher profile medical charities. Asthma UK has an annual income of about £8 million, compared with Cancer Research UK’s annual income of £634 million in 2017/2018, or the British Heart Foundation’s £328 million. In that context, the range of work Asthma UK supports, in collaboration with the NHS, private sector companies, academia and other organisations, is impressive.

The idea that she would one day be running a charity and grappling with this kind of daunting challenge would have come as a great surprise to Boycott at the start of her career in the early 1990s. While at school and university, she was drawn towards seeking a career in a very different industry.

“Marketing and advertising at that time were both seen as quite glamorous,” she recalls. Following graduation from Durham University with a degree in Economics and History, Boycott was selected for a place on what she now recognises was an extraordinarily well-funded graduate training scheme at Nestlé, which provided excellent training in brand management and account management. After two years spent working for the company in York, she applied for another brand management position at Johnson & Johnson, in London, where she has lived ever since.

These early jobs gave Boycott some extremely valuable skills. “They gave me a good grounding in lots of things that you need to be an effective manager,” she explains. “At Johnson & Johnson you were like a mini-MD: you had your brand and managed everything from new product development to working with the sales team.” She left in 1999 to join a consultancy firm, where she worked for the next decade, providing counsel on commercial strategy to clients including GSK, Nestlé, Unilever, Vodafone, John Lewis and the Department of Health. “It fitted brilliantly into my life at that time: it was interesting; and I also had small children, so it was useful to be able to work from home some of the time.”

During this period, she began to consider the possibility of a career change – “As you get older that idea of your work needing a social purpose starts calling to you.” In 2004 she took on a non-executive position at the NHS Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust. She chaired the Trust’s Audit Committee and served on other committees including that for Clinical Governance. “I loved it,” she says. “I learned an enormous amount.”

Almost exactly ten years ago, Boycott left the private sector to become director of communications, policy and campaigns at Shelter. She joined the charity just as the impact of the financial crisis and the recession sparked an increase in homelessness and in housing repossessions.

“I probably didn’t really understand what I was getting into,” she recalls. “It was a rollercoaster for years.” She is still very grateful to Shelter for taking a bit of risk: in addition to not having worked in the charity or housing sectors before, she had no experience of policy work or managing a media team. But she settled in and is very proud of the work her team did during her tenure, particularly its campaign against rogue landlords; and policy work that included persuading government to change the law relating to housing repossessions.

Boycott says she also learned a lot from colleagues at Shelter, “about how you make change happen – not just calling for the same things over and over again, but thinking about how we connect with policymakers in a different way.”

In 2013, she brought all the experience built up over the previous 20 years to the chief executive’s role at Asthma UK. She believes her experience running digital campaigns at Shelter was one of the reasons she was appointed. She also believes digital has been an important element in the charity’s strategy during the past five years, in part because so many of the most high-risk asthma sufferers are likely to be younger people who use digital platforms much more.

“People engage across multiple channels, so digital is constantly changing,” Boycott explains. “We have to keep playing catch-up. We are now reaching two million people with our digital advice, which is fantastic. We’ve tried to work alongside what the NHS is providing and tried to make what we do complementary.”

She believes many charities are struggling with the challenge of using digital as an effective and efficient donation-gathering channel. “One problem now is that there are so many different ways you could raise money,” she says. “You’ve got to be ruthless about the ones that don’t work for you – and you’ve got to keep looking at new possibilities.”

But the most important element of her work for the charity has related to more fundamental requirements. “You can’t do any innovation or change if you don’t have good governance or financial stability,” she says. “A lot of my early time here was spent improving those controls. You’ve got to have a solid foundation.”

The other important element that she believes will help the charity progress towards its goals is collaboration with other organisations in the NHS, academia and the private sector. She cites work with Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network to help coordinate work aimed at improving asthma diagnosis; and with corporate partners including AstraZeneca and Italian pharmaceutical company, Chiesi. “We’ve helped to broker some big research collaborations: we’re currently trying to do one across the UK and the US, looking at how you link up asthma research around new drugs for severe sufferers.”

Away from her day job, Boycott also continues to help other organisations: as a member of the General Advisory Council for health charity, The King’s Fund; a lay member of the Durham University Council and a trustee of the Association of Medical Research Charities.

“These are non-executive roles, so they’re not enormous time commitments. It keeps you learning and it can bring new ideas into your organisation. As a charity CEO, you are very focused on one mission. Taking on roles that are a bit broader helps you to avoid getting stale.”

Between 2011 and 2015 she was also a trustee of Gingerbread, a charity which supports single parents; Boycott herself was a single parent for some years when her children were younger before meeting her current partner. This year, life outside work is dominated by the fact that one of her children will be taking their GCSEs while the other sits A-Levels. “I’m going through a year of providing food at regular intervals to revising children,” she says. “Exams and a well-stocked fridge are my priorities.”

She thinks the experience of being a single parent has influenced the way she works: in particular by encouraging that emphasis on the value of a collaborative approach. But she also suggests that “being a charity chief executive is a bit like parenting”.

“If someone sat you down beforehand and told you exactly what it consists of, would you do it? But once you’re in it, you’re in a messy, wonderful world of possibilities.”

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