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Mike Whitlam: a career making a difference

From teaching to working at the British Red Cross via HM Prison Service, Save the Children Fund and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Mike Whitlam CBE (Cert Ed 1965 - 68) has had a varied career, always with the aim of making a difference to others. The first recipient of the Charity Lifetime Achievement Award talked to Warwick Connect about the challenges and satisfaction of working in the third sector.

Why did you pursue your particular career path and what would you recommend about it?
I drifted into working in the voluntary sector and very quickly realised it was a place where you could achieve things and make a difference in a way that isn’t possible when you are bound by public sector rules and regulations.

At school it was suggested that I became a teacher, but after doing this for a short time, I responded to a job advertisement asking ‘Are you a manager with a social conscience?’, and became an Assistant Prison Governor at the age of 21. Working with offenders at Hollesley Bay Borstal and Brixton prison, I realised there were alternatives to custody that could be successful and was invited to join NACRO (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders). From that time, I saw that voluntary organisations have the freedom to take an idea, challenge Ministers and go out and find the cash to make it happen. I’ve now spent 30-odd years doing that.

I would thoroughly recommend it, but you must believe in what you are doing to change your bit of the world - it doesn’t matter whether it is animals, people or the environment. To be successful, everyone in the organisation needs to have passion and a strong belief in wanting to make the world a better place.

What have been the most challenging parts of your career … and the most satisfying aspects?

The challenges have been the extra issues on top of managing complex organisations. For example, whilst I was with the British Red Cross, going into war zones and getting involved in hostage negotiations. In the first Gulf War I was the first British person to go into Baghdad, I’ve had a gun held to my head in Somalia and been briefly held hostage in Bosnia - I found all that very scary because I was on my own and pushed to the limit of my capabilities.

What has been satisfying is a sense of having made a difference to people’s lives for the better in the parts of the world where I have worked. Overseas, people are alive today who wouldn’t have been because of my decisions and actions, such as getting aid into Bosnia. There are also people who are not blind now because we set up cataract operations through Vision 2020. I’m a great campaigner and most of the work I have done I have used the results in campaigns so as to to change the way things were done.

You have probably seen humanity at its best and worst, which experiences stand out for you?
It constantly amazes me the effort that people make, all over the world, to help others. The teams I have worked with give 150%, all the time. It’s more than a job, it’s a way of life to try and make a difference. Sometimes it’s not about giving people financial support, but giving them hope and a purpose in life; it is a privilege to be able to do that.

The worst single experience was seeing the scale of death in Somalia. In the early 90s I went there with a news crew to find out what was happening as no-one had been able to get in for 18 months. Four thousand people were dying every day, and bodies had to be collected every day in lorries and buried, often at the side of the roads.

What has been your proudest moment professionally?
There are actually two that stand out. The first was creating the first deaf telephone service in the UK. Although it was thought that voice recognition would supersede it, the Text Relay service is still going 22 years later.

The second was the Anti-Personnel Landmines Campaign with Diana, Princess of Wales, because it was high profile and difficult to achieve. So many people were dying and being injured by unexploded land mines that we [The British Red Cross] had to start a campaign. I took Diana into Angola where there were 15 million unexploded landmines. We were accompanied by 90 journalists, eight television crews and a BBC documentary team, and the result was that governments had to take the issue seriously and take action. That documentary is now one of the most viewed in the world, seen by over 600 million people. An update was done later on the impact of the visit and the difference it had made to Angola. There are people alive now who would have been killed by those landmines.

What’s more important, who you know or what you know?
I am a collector of people and have made a point over the years of meeting and getting to know them. Networking is not ‘not working’. It’s all very well having a good idea and resources, but to succeed you also need people to bring about changes in attitude and to the way things are done.

To be credible, you can’t get away with just who you know. It doesn’t matter where you work; you need to be clear about your vision, your mission and your values. If you can articulate those, then ‘who you know’ will come on board and help you.

Some of the things you have seen or dealt with in the past must have been distressing. How do you put your feelings aside to work effectively?

I suspect that I haven’t. I’ve worked 24 hours a day for most my career – my phone is always on, I’ve flown off at short notice – and been fortunate that the family have put up with it. I’m not good at switching off and get very focussed on the task in hand, putting everything else to one side. Rediscovering my faith 16 years ago has made a big difference and I have used God a lot to help me get through some of the difficult times.

How do you balance the very different aspects of your current working life?
I now have a portfolio of work which includes a range of public and voluntary roles. There is a danger that every organisation with whom you are working expects you to be a full-time member of staff so that you end up doing many more days per month than you originally expected, so you must be well organised. I’ve chosen work that gives me a buzz – either being part of something new (Russam), doing something locally (Hillingdon NHS Primary Care Trust) or in areas that I haven’t worked before (Ofcom).

You have worked at very large not for profit organisations and been involved with much smaller ones, such as your local youth football team. What skills would you say are needed to be successful, regardless of the size of the organisation?
At the start you need to sort out three things: to have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve; to have a clear mission of how you will go about it and have clear values of what you believe in. It doesn’t matter what size the organisation is, if you have identified those things, it answers every other question, such as how much money you need, how many staff or volunteers or whether to stay local or go global.

What advice would you give the younger Mike Whitlam?

Be clear about what you can achieve in the world, look around and see what needs to be done and go for it. Don’t be afraid or put off by other people.

What are the biggest challenges that face the third sector?

Money. The sector has grown so rapidly over the last few years and is heavily dependent on donations. The impact of the recession means we have to think differently about how to plug the financial gap. One way is to deliver a range of services on behalf of Government and local authorities in a way that probably wasn’t possible before. Voluntary organisations, combined with local expertise, can usually do it more cost-effectively.

Our 130,000+ alumni often want to use their personal and professional skills to make a difference to the world. How would you suggest they can contribute?
Anyone can volunteer and use their skills to help an organisation. For those who are mid-career or retired, one of the best ways is to take on a governance role as a trustee of a local or a national organisation. There are 190,000 charities in the UK with an average of 10 trustees in each of those, which means one million people are needed. At Russam GMS we run a trustee finding service and can point people in the right direction.

Mike Whitlam - fact file
Teacher - Ripon Secondary Modern School
Governor – Prison Service, Hollesley Bay Borstal and Brixton Prison
NACRO – first Director of Hammersmith Teenage Project
Save the Children – Deputy UK Director & Director (UK)
1986-90 RNID – Chief Executive Officer
Founder of Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations
The British Red Cross – Director General
1999-2001 The Mentor Foundation – (first) Chief Executive

Received CBE
Charity Lifetime Achievement Award (first recipient)

Vision 2020 - Right to Sight campaign – (first) Chief Executive Officer
Currrent: Chair, The Chalker Foundation for Africa; Non Executive Director, Hillingdon NHS Primary Care Trust; Chair, Ofcom Advisory Committee on Older & Disabled Persons issues; Board member, Watford Football Club Community Education Trust; Charity Consultant, Interim executive service for charities with Russam GMS.

Listen to Mike's advice for alumni wishing to work in the third sector