I was naïve about the charity world when I took on the role of CEO at the Melanoma Foundation of New Zealand two years ago. But I came with enthusiasm and a drive to learn. After familiarising myself with the structure and strategic goals, I believed I had the ability to take this charity to the next level. After almost two years in the role I feel proud that we have raised our profile and developed further credibility amongst the community and clinicians, but we still have lots more to achieve.

Being the CEO of a small cancer charity you haverequires me to wear many hats. The days are full of decision making around many aspects of the organisation’s work. When the phone rings and someone asks for the media contact, or the telecommunications expert, or the fundraiser — you are it. Continuously changing from a strategist, to fundraiser, to event planner, to relationship manager, to communications manager, to marketer to patient advocate has its moments. An identity crisis in the making.

When taking on the role, I considered myself a good business manager having managed a team of 70 in a DHB setting, with diverse personalities and constant demands. I had managed a major project which changed the course of treatment, and felt that my main strength was in building relationships. I had a sound medical knowledge about melanoma combined with a love of impacting the lives of cancer patients. However, emerging into a charity setting when you are not sure of where the next dollar is coming from was a rude awakening to the real world of competitive funding applications; but by now I no longer face these challenges with trepidation.

In my transition from a team of 70 to a small team of four, I soon discovered how important it was to get along and work as a team, to cross boundaries when the need arose and fill the gaps when someone was on leave. Mustering together is so important for the survival of the charity. I have been very fortunate to have a devoted team of individuals who want to see the charity go from strength to strength. With a small team it is important to bring everything back to your strategic plan, and stick to it. So often you get requests to get involved with something, but it is so easy to overcommit and under deliver. It is hard to compete out there amongst well-known charities who which have a great following plus powerful fundraising and marketing teams. However, remembering the reason you exist keeps you focussed.

Another harsh reality of a small charity is that you don’t have the infrastructure of a big organisation. When IT problems arise we try to fix them; we do our own advertising and recruitment — no HR department to call on. At times this is daunting, so minimising risk in these areas is important. As a national organisation this brings challenges in trying to engage with communities from a distance.

Based in Auckland, it is imperative that we don’t appear too Auckland-centric. Thank goodness for social media, newsletters and email. When I have been visiting another part of New Zealand for educational purposes or to present seminars, I always made make an effort to visit our patient contacts. This is well worth it and helps to build the rapport in providing ongoing support.

I have managed several million dollar budgets in the past and now have a much smaller budget. I think both have their risks. I don’t think the risk is any bigger, because it is all relevant to outgoings. Someone said to me that a rule in a charity is to have a year’s operational costs in the bank in case of a downturn. Sometimes, though, you might just have to take the risk of spending some of your reserves to grow to the next level.

There are times when you are the only person in the office, which can make you feel very isolated. I soon realised how important it was to have networks of like-minded individuals who were in similar situations to brain storm ideas and help guide you along the way. An engaged board of trustees is so important given the small staff. I have learnt to utilise their skills to our advantage, and am so grateful to have them give so willingly of their time — no matter how small.

I have made some mistakes along the way and learnt some hard lessons about facing the media, which kept me awake at night. Having some great mentors from other NGOs has made the difference between self-destruction and survival. Media training is in the pipeline.
I believe one of the biggest factors for success is relationship building, whether it be with donors, fundraisers, sponsors or volunteers. Some of our biggest successes have come when we least expected them, just because we took the time to talk. Those many cups of coffee have never been a waste of time.

Being a small organisation has its limitation. When resources are stretched and demands are coming at you from all angles, it can be difficult not to try and take on the world — so my advice is don’t. Keep going back to your core values and keep realistic expectations.

Is this what I expected: NO. But I have nurtured and enjoyed so many great relationships, met so many new people, been inspired by the many people that contact us and go home feeling I have made a difference. When a patient says, “You were there when no one else had the time to talk,” or, “If it hadn’t been for your campaign, I wouldn’t have got checked and found out I had melanoma. Thank you for saving my life,” it makes it all worthwhile.

I often look at the bigger organisations and see their fundraisers, communications people and events managers and wonder how cool it might be to have all of that expertise under one roof. Then I look at my team and feel proud of all we achieve, and the talents that have been nurtured to make us what we are today and beyond.

Linda Flay, MFINZ, CEO
Melanoma Foundation of New Zealand

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