Interview: Dame Fiona Reynolds

Tania Mason, group editor, Civil Society Media; Dame Fiona Reynolds; Jo Coburn, BBC correspondent

Interview: Dame Fiona Reynolds

Governance | Tania Mason | 15 Jun 2012

The 2012 Charity Awards judges have selected Dame Fiona Reynolds as the winner of this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award. Tania Mason met her.

In a few weeks’ time, Dame Fiona Reynolds will leave the venerated National Trust, the £400m-income charity she has led for the last 12 years, for a new post as Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Her departure will draw the curtain on a period of enormous change at the Trust; in many ways the heritage and conservation charity is barely recognisable from the fusty, old-fashioned institution she inherited in 2000.

It now has more than four million members - up from 2.7 million when she took charge - a Facebook page, a virtual farming community, and nearly 67,000 Twitter followers. It operates out of new, ultra-modern, environmentally-friendly headquarters in Swindon. It has a trustee board of 12 – 40 less than when she joined – and a new staffing structure that devolves much more power to local property managers. Dame Fiona sums up the new culture as “open-arms conservation”.

“I hope that the big thing that I’ve been able to bring to the Trust,” she says, “is that as well as being a passionate conservationist, I have a real love of people. When I got here, my analysis was that this organisation is brilliant at conservation, but I questioned whether we really loved people.”

At the time, the Trust’s relationship with its public was totally on its own terms, very much a ‘look but don’t touch, this is hallowed ground’ approach. Most of its 350-plus historic houses seemed to be full of roped-off areas and library-quiet, children weren’t allowed to play, and properties would be closed to the public while restoration took place. But under Reynolds’ leadership, Trust properties have become much more user-friendly and welcoming – families can picnic on the lawns, all restoration work takes place in full view of visitors, and many properties now have rooms where visitors can relax on sofas, read books, perhaps even play billiards. “It’s the difference between closed-arms conservation and open-arms conservation which says ‘this belongs to all of us, not just the organisation’,” says Dame Fiona.

Successful campaigner

The Trust’s expanding membership has also given it a new legitimacy in terms of campaigning. In the last year alone, National Trust campaigns have managed to derail two flagship government policies – first on the sale of forestry assets and later on the planning reforms that threatened to introduce a presumption in favour of development. Dame Fiona is sure that these are the kinds of changes the trustees had in mind when they recruited her to the job all those years back.

“There was a recognition they wanted change,” she said. “They wouldn’t have appointed me otherwise – I was still reasonably young, the first woman ever to take the job, a campaigner. There were plenty of people they could have hired if they wanted things to stay the same.”

Her arrival as director-general, aged 42, certainly raised some eyebrows at the time – the Daily Mail described her as a ‘Tony Crony’ while others depicted her as a ‘Blair babe’. And the changes she has instigated have not been universally welcomed – a quick search of any comment board relating to stories about the Trust will soon throw up accusations that the leadership has put commercial imperatives ahead of historical ones and even tried to ‘Disneyfy’ the organisation. But the evidence, especially membership numbers and campaigning victories, speaks for itself.  For Dame Fiona, it’s been “my dream job”.

“I have a very powerful instinct about the ethos of an organisation I lead,” she says. “It’s not intellectual, it’s quite emotional – I have this sense of what matters, of what is the personality of the organisation. I am really passionate about an organisation’s history – the first thing I do when I get a new job is read about its history.”

Hence, she doesn’t really perceive the changes she instigated at the National Trust to have been taking it into a new phase, but more about reconnecting it with its origins and its provenance.

New challenge

So why leave?  For the same reason that she left the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) in 1998 after nine years, seven at its helm. “I felt I had got a bit too cosy, too comfortable,” she confesses. “I wanted to test myself in a different environment.”

So she will join Emmanuel College (also a charity) in September, but won’t actually take up the post until a year later – she is taking a gap year first to write a book. “It’s partly a story about the issues of the day, about why an organisation like the National Trust matters, about our quality of life and the values we have as a society.”

She describes Emmanuel College as “like a mini-National Trust – it has beautiful buildings, beautiful gardens” but adds that she is not being brought in as a change agent this time. “I’ll be responsible for the wellbeing of the college, making sure it thrives and is a happy and harmonious place. I think it’s going to be lovely.”

The Emmanuel job will take Reynolds back to Cambridge University where she read geography and land economics as an undergraduate.  It’s where she had her “breakthrough” moment, when she realised that she could actually earn a living from working in the conservation field, that it didn’t always just have to be a hobby.

“It was always in my blood,” she explains. “I was one of five girls, and we had this amazingly energetic and inspiring father who was a metallurgist in his day job but all kinds of things outside of work – explorer, historian, photographer, pianist, lay Methodist preacher - you name it. We were always off in the countryside, camping or exploring ancient sites. So it was central to who I am and what I cared about.

“But the breakthrough came the day I realised that maybe I could have a job in this area, that I could get paid for doing it.” After university she saw a job advertised to head up the new charity that had just been spun off from CPRE and CPRW, which was then called the Council for National Parks. She applied, and to her utter surprise got it, and so found herself in her first CEO role in her very first job – albeit with just one part-time employee.

'Unbelievable luck'

The president of the new charity was Lord Hunt, the leader of the successful 1953 British expedition to Mount Everest which saw Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquer the summit. As the Council’s newly-appointed ‘secretary’, Reynolds found herself traipsing around after Hunt on charity duties, meeting with ministers in the Houses of Parliament, visiting national parks, campaigning for their protection.

“It was unbelievable luck,” she says. “I absolutely loved that job. I learnt so much from John Hunt – he taught me how to lobby, he just knew how to sow the seeds of brilliant ideas. He had this knack of making people think it was their idea, he was absolutely inspirational.

“I really do believe that every single thing that has happened since in my life flowed from that opportunity.”

After eight years at the Council, Reynolds moved to the CPRE as assistant director and within five years had been promoted to director. This time she had 50 staff. “Again, it was a joyous organisation to work for,” she says. “I went from protecting national parks to protecting the whole countryside.”

She stayed with CPRE 11 years in total, and then surprised everybody, including herself, by landing the job as the first director of the new Women’s Unit in the Cabinet Office under the new Labour government. She was intrigued to find out how policy is actually made within government, and also felt it was time to test herself with a new challenge.

“Well, it certainly worked!” she declares. “I can’t say I loved it, it was quite an uncomfortable process, but it did everything I hoped it would – it challenged me intellectually and emotionally. I had to learn to operate in a big bureaucracy and get things done where people were not sympathetic to your cause.  It was a very fast-paced, high-pressured, high-octane time, but I did learn how to get things done in a cross-cutting environment when government is organised in silos, using the powers of persuasion, of evidence, of negotiation, when you don’t have a big stick to beat.”

But, she admits, it was “never my milieu, if I’m honest”, and after two and a half years she quit the civil service to take up the National Trust post.

'Charity person to my fingertips'

“I am a charity, voluntary sector person to my fingertips,” she says. “I love being part of civil society, of working in an environment where things happen because people care about them.”  

It was far from her first connection with the Trust, though. She first became a member while at Cambridge, and in her early 20s joined the Thames and Chilterns Regional Committee.  A group of local residents was campaigning against the Trust’s plans to turn a historic Tudor house into flats, and Reynolds supported the campaign. The Committee was successful in persuading the then-director-general to change his mind, and today Sutton House is a thriving community resource, a hive of activity by local people. Reynolds served on the committee for ten years and then in her mid-30s she became a trustee on the 52-strong National Trust board – but only stayed a few years before stepping down when she got the Cabinet Office job.

Asked what kind of leadership style she employs, Dame Fiona returns to John Hunt.  “He used to say that if you trust people, 99 per cent of them will return that trust. I am not an autocratic leader, I am a very listening kind of leader, that hopefully inspires and enables other people to be inspiring.”

The Dame Fiona years



2000 - now        Director-general, National Trust                               
1998 - 2000      Director, Women’s Unit, Cabinet Office                                                            
1987 - 1998      Council for the Protection of Rural England  
                           1987 – 1992 Assistant director (policy)
                           1992 – 1998 Director
1980 – 1987     Secretary, Council for National Parks                        

Other roles:

Government advisory roles
1990          Member, National Parks Review Panel
1995          Member, Common Agricultural Policy Review Panel
Mid-1990s Member, Sustainable Development Round Table
2001          Member, Farming and Food Policy Commission
2008          Member, Commission on the Future of Volunteering
2009-10    Member, Defra’s Council of Food Policy Advisers
2010-11    Member, Defra’s ministerial advisory panel for the White Paper on the Natural Environment
Now            Member, Independent Forestry Advisory Panel

Board roles
1990s                    UK member of the Board of the European Environmental Bureau
1998 – present     Board member, Green Alliance
1999 – present     Board member, Institute for European Environmental Policy
2005 – 2010         Board member, Creative and Cultural Skills Council
2012 - present      Member of the board of trustees of the BBC

In 2008 she was made a Dame for services to heritage and conservation.  She is married to Robert Merrill and they have three daughters.


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