The experience of a first-time chief executive

09 May 2013 Voices

Alexander Swallow is what would commonly be described as a "rising star" in the charity sector. With six months of experience as the chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition now under his belt, he offers a snapshot of his new life.

Alexander Swallow is what would commonly be described as a "rising star" in the charity sector. With six months of experience as the chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition now under his belt, he offers a snapshot of his new life.

Six months in feels like a good opportunity to pause and reflect. And it's a deserved break. My new role as chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition/Charity Trustee Networks has certainly been an intense experience, though I’ve enjoyed it greatly - in many ways, this is my dream job.

I wanted to start by making an observation about the small charities sector. The charity I have joined is a fantastic organisation where the staff, trustees and volunteers are both passionate about the aims of the charity and skillful at carrying out its work, but there is also a huge and growing demand for the work that we do. Meeting small charities and learning more about our membership has confirmed for me what I felt upon taking the role, which is that small charities typically do a fantastic job at delivering services but sometimes lack the support, funding, training and networks they need to survive and thrive. SCC wants to help ease that burden a little. As a small charity ourselves we share in both the frustrations and the joys of our members’ work. So far I have seen many ways in which small charities and small charity perspectives can be excluded (either consciously or unconsciously) from national debates both inside and outside the sector.

On a more personal note, becoming the chief executive of an organisation which I had no hand in setting up has provided quite a contrast to my prior position. I founded, Young Charity Trustees, and for the months ahead of my current role, I had been focusing on seeing if it had the potential to turn into a fully-fledged charity. When I took up my new position I was walking into an already established culture, and while I had a few ideas from the start about the direction in which I wanted to help take it, I made sure I took the time to understand the organisation and particularly the reasons for which it was founded.

Ever since, it has been a fascinating journey. I have had a great deal of new things to grapple with in a short space of time, in fact it has been the most intense learning experience of my life. I’d say the two biggest challenges I’ve encountered so far are: time management - because there’s so many potential exciting things to get involved with; and having to focus on so many things at the same time. I think being a small charity chief exec is like having an infinite number of pots on an infinite number of hobs and learning which you need to attend to, which you can let bubble away on their own, and which you can leave others to sort. In a few years I'm sure my sweary, third-sector-version-of-Gordon-Ramsey side will have dissipated.

Open doors

I speak in jest about my potty-mouth, of course, but it brings me to another facet of my new-found position - the way that I am now perceived. Inside the sector, having the title of chief executive opens certain doors. Being a person who quite naturally takes people as I find them, whoever they are, this has taken some getting used to. Perceptions outside the sector have been equally interesting: for example I have the impression that a good deal of people think of the sector as being pretty unprofessional, (I once received verbal abuse from a drunk man on the Tube who said I was ‘wasting my education’), but I have felt a slight shift in the past few months when I tell people that I am a 'chief executive'. I feel pretty uncomfortable about this, having a particular title doesn’t suddenly make me more professional or worthy.

Despite this, I feel like I'm at a particularly exciting stage in my career. I certainly didn’t expect to be a chief exec at 30 years old. But one of the best actions I have taken to get this position, and has supported me in the role so far, is to surround myself with brilliant people who give me excellent mentoring, help and advice and make sure that I am aware of both opportunities and things to watch out for.

I have a great deal that I could improve on and one thing is probably having more confidence in my own abilities. Being quite young is part of it but I also think my social background means that a lot of the experiences I am currently having are new both for me and for my family. I’ve had great times in my life but I’ve had rougher times too and I hope that those times help make me a more sympathetic leader, colleague and small yet persistent voice within the sector.

I feel that I am very lucky to be where I am and I intend to use this opportunity to make the biggest difference for small charities and small charity trustees that I can.


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