Chris Sherwood: ‘We must challenge the perceptions of what a charity leader looks like’

19 Aug 2022 Interviews

RSPCA’s chief executive discusses his experiences in the sector and how charities can support staff from less privileged backgrounds to thrive

Chris Sherwood, CEO of RSPCA and NCVO trustee


As a gay man with a working-class upbringing, RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood has found a lack of leaders from a similar background in the charity sector.

At his current organisation, approaching its 200th birthday, Sherwood says he is amused by how much his own background differs from his predecessors.

“In our head office, we have this big oak board with all the chief execs going back to 1824. And there's quite a lot of lords, sirs, letters after their names, and then for me it just says ‘Mr Chris Sherwood’, which always makes me giggle.”

Sherwood, who became the leader of RSPCA in 2018 at 37-years-old, puts some of his own success down to luck and says there was a “lot of potential that wasn't realised” in former steelworks town Corby, Northamptonshire, where he grew up.

“I don't think I'm some super brilliant person that was really a high achiever – I was just lucky. Right people, right time, good advice, good support and was a bit brave and did it.”

Sherwood says more charities should invest in mentoring and leadership development for their staff so they can develop their skills and experience in the way he has.

Rebellious focus on education

Support to excel in his career did not necessarily come at an early age. Sherwood was focused on his education despite one of his mother's favourite phrases being “Richard Branson was an entrepreneur, and he never went to university”.

Sherwood had a “tricky relationship” with his mother and father, who were both alcoholics. He says he “kind of rebelled” by becoming the first person in his family to get GCSEs and A levels and then going to university.

Before starting higher education, Sherwood says his eyes were opened by a year he spent as a youth and children’s worker in the “wealthiest part of Plymouth”.

“I remember going out for afternoon tea, and I've never been for afternoon tea before. They brought a pot of hot water and I was like: ‘Well, where's the bloody tea bag?’”

Seeing the difference in prosperity between the area he then worked and his hometown, Sherwood became driven by “a desire to make things better for other people”.

Throughout university, Sherwood worked in social services for the local council in Exeter, where he studied.

“I worked in day centre services for adults with learning disabilities and mental health issues as a way to put myself through university because I had no money,” he said.

After graduating, he stayed at the council for another year as an administrator writing core funding applications.

Journey to charity CEO

Sherwood says his early career focus, post-university, was on disability equality, partly due to his own experience of having epilepsy since the age of 16.

He was on “a lot of medication” in his 20s to control his epilepsy, which Sherwood says impacted his energy levels. He had seizures in the workplace, which also meant that for many years he was unable to drive. Sherwood, a keen cyclist, finally learnt to drive four years ago, but says being unable to do so earlier was “a big headache”.

Early on, Sherwood worked in business development roles at disability organisations. These included Scope, for five years across two stints, the Shaw Trust, and Pluss, as well as innovation charity Nesta.

He joined relationship support charity Relate 10 years ago as its director of policy, communications and digital services before being promoted to his first chief executive role in 2015 at the organisation.

Sherwood says he moved away from the disability sector to Relate and then RSPCA because of their “broader agenda” around contributing to “the good society”.

“I also want the stimulation, the learning. I think that's probably one of the things that has set me on my career is a desire to better myself and [be] intellectually curious. I don't really have that kind of ego thing – ‘I know the answer’ – that's not really me.”

Leading a major charity at a young age

When Sherwood became chief executive of the RSPCA in 2018, he says he was intimidated by the size of the organisation, which has around 1,500 staff and 7,000 volunteers.

“I had worked in a small office in Euston with about 12 people in the office. I used to walk around with no shoes on. Then I moved to our [former] head office [in Southwater], which was a three storey two-winged building, and 400 eyes staring at me as I walked across the corridor. So of course, I was bricking it.”

He says running a smaller charity like Relate, which was “struggling financially” while he was there and where he was required to get his “hands dirty with lots more things”, put him in good stead for his current role.

As a relatively young charity leader, Sherwood said it was “probably was a tougher bar for me in being able to persuade and reassure trustees that I was going to be able to do that job well”.

He said managing staff with more years of experience made it especially important to adopt a collaborative leadership approach, “where you are actually respecting that I know some stuff [and] this person knows some stuff”.

‘It is important to be open as a leader about who you are’

Sherwood has experienced homophobia both in the charity sector and elsewhere. He says he was once “pretty much told to not be camp” at a smaller charity he worked for and received inappropriate comments about his appearance. When he was announced as RSPCA’s chief executive, a national newspaper unnecessarily referred to his sexuality in their coverage of his appointment. 

Walking with his partner in London, Sherwood also had “horrendous homophobic abuse” shouted at him and once had eggs thrown at him by people driving past in a van.

But Sherwood says there has been “a lot of change” in the charity sector and that the homophobia he now experiences is “rare, rather than the norm”.

“I talk about going to Pride and I have no fear around doing that, whereas probably early in my career I would have. But I still think it's important to be open as a leader about who you are as a person to make it easier for others to do so.”

In recent years, sector groups such as Charity So Straight and Queer Trustees have launched to help people to share their experiences of homophobia in the sector and to encourage organisations to act.

Sherwood said such groups are “raising important questions”, which can sometimes be “uncomfortable for us as leaders”.

“If we want to be a relevant sector, to really be there at the forefront of meeting our beneficiaries’ needs and advocating on their behalf, then we really also need to ensure that we reflect the society in which we operate. Because fundamentally, what this is really about is power and influence.”

Sherwood says, “probably because I am one of those millennial chief executives coming up in the sector”, that he is “a real fan of this idea of a distributed leadership”.

“It's not about the CEO, it's about the leadership team, it's about where decisions are made. And it is about new models of power and influence in an organisation.”

‘We are behind the public and private sectors on inclusion’

Sherwood feels it is important to talk about his background, “because I think we do have to challenge the perceptions of what a leader looks like in the sector”.

He says there are expectations in the sector that leaders “come with a network of investment bankers who are going to give money to the charity”. Indeed, Sherwood says a friend of his who applied to be a charity chief executive was told a different candidate was hired because they were friends with a member of the Royal Family.

“I think we are behind the public and the private sector, when it comes to the inclusion agenda. And I think you can see that play out in statistics around leadership.

“We've got some real catching up to do around inclusion of people from black and minority ethnic communities. And I think this debate around class has been happening on the fringes.”

Sherwood says the charity sector is “awash with equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) plans and strategies” but he says it is “about actually what actions we take to really ensure that we're inclusive”.

Modernising RSPCA’s culture

Sherwood joined RSPCA as its eighth chief executive in 11 years and at a time when the organisation was being monitored by the Charity Commission over concerns about its governance and leadership, which he says have since been rectified.

In his first year, Sherwood pledged to tackle a “culture of bullying” at the charity after a survey by Unite found that 29% of staff had been bullied and 46% believed bullying was a serious issue in the organisation.

One of the first things Sherwood did when he joined RSPCA was to appoint a director of people and culture. He said doing so was “so important in being able to modernise the culture” of the organisation. The charity then published a people and culture strategy, which it is set to update in the autumn of this year.

He helped to rollout the charity’s first management development programme, which trains staff to develop their skills in managing colleagues. A part of this, he says, is ensuring that staff “feel able to disclose” any discrimination or mistreatment they have experienced and making sure any complaints are “taken very seriously and properly investigated and dealt with”.

RSPCA also works closely with trade union Unite. “We don't always agree with each other on these things. But they have a really important role to play in making sure they speak truth to power and make sure they speak truth to leaders as well.”

Sherwood also says he has “worked really hard” with an external agency to diversify the charity’s executive team, which is now majority female.

Like many charities, RSPCA is reviewing its equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies. It is recruiting a head of EDI to implement the recommendations that come out of its review. But, Sherwood says, rather than having a standalone EDI strategy, the policies will be “weaved throughout the organisation” including its people and culture strategy, its fundraising work, volunteering programme and its work on prevention.

RSPCA recently sold its headquarters in Southwater, West Sussex, where 380 staff were based, to embrace a more flexible working policy. Staff can use the rented London hub in Southwark but they are not required to come into the office for any set number of days.

Impending animal welfare crisis

Sherwood had a passion for animals from a young age. “Growing up in a fairly chaotic household, pets were really important to me, we had three dogs, and they used to sleep on my bed with me.”

He found the dogs a “really big source of comfort” and enjoyed taking them for long walks in the countryside when times were difficult.

But Sherwood is concerned that the current spike in inflation will lead more pet owners today to struggle to cope.

“We're living in a cost-of-living crisis and I really get what that means. I remember the 1990s recession, my dad lost his job, we had no money.

“[The cost-of-living crisis] is going to put real pressure on beneficiaries and charities, it's inevitable. And we can see in our own data that nearly a fifth of people are worried about being able to feed their pet.

“We can already see in internet searches for how to get help with vet bills. We can see that pressure already building in the system for pet owners, as well. So, we are worried about that looming crisis for animal welfare that the cost-of-living crisis is going to cause.”

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