Twitter is amazing and was the cause of my getting to know the amazing Deborah Alsina. Deborah is the chief executive of a national charity and I was intrigued to know how she came by such a job. Do read her story – I know she’ll inspire you as she has me!
Jane: Deborah, can you describe your current role?
Deborah: I’m the Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, a national charity which aims to save lives by raising awareness of bowel cancer, campaigning for best treatment and care and providing practical support and advice to patients, their family and friends.
Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK, but it is highly treatable if diagnosed early. Unfortunately awareness of the disease is too low and people are often unaware of the disease itself or its symptoms. That makes Bowel Cancer UK’s work even more important as raising awareness really can save lives.
How did you end up in this post? Was it through personal experience or a career choice?
A bit of both actually. My father was diagnosed with bowel cancer in early 2008 and sadly died in June that same year. During the course of his diagnosis and treatment I was shocked to learn that bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer, yet I knew nothing about it at all. His death was profoundly shocking and I’m convinced that if I had known then what I know now, he would have survived.
During the course of those few months and after his death, I researched the disease and the charitable sector as I wanted to know more. In my mind, I was sure there had to be a big cancer charity that was providing support and advice as there are, for example, in breast and prostate cancer. I was shocked to discover that in fact the charities focusing on bowel cancer were small and under-developed and realised that in part this was due to the nature of the disease and its public image.
I’ve worked in the voluntary sector for 20 years and at the time was working as a self-employed management consultant so I decided to turn my painful negative experiences into a positive by getting involved in some way. I wrote to Bowel Cancer UK and offered to help and my probono consultancy services quickly became employment! I became Director of Services and Strategy in June 2009 and then Chief Executive a year later.
I’m at my best professionally when I’m passionate about what I do and I think the reason this role works so well is that it brings together my personal experience with my professional skills.
What is main difference working in charity sector as opposed to the private sector?
The most obvious difference is that the charity sector is cause driven, not about profit. Of course we want to make a profit (normally through fundraising) but then plough that back into the charity to ensure we meet our mission, in Bowel Cancer UK’s case to save lives from bowel cancer. I think charities should be run with the same rigour as a business but with a cause at their core.
To be truly effective, they should be fast moving, sharply run, independent and full of creativity and innovation. Our ultimate aim should be to put ourselves out of business because we’ve solved the issue we are focused upon.
What were your career aspirations when you left school?
I was going to be an opera singer! From the age of six, I was always going to be a musician – initially a cellist and then in my mid –teens I discovered, to my amazement, that I had a good voice and just loved it. My aim was to go to music college to study singing but as I finished school when I was still 17 and young voices need looking after, I went to university first to read Music.
However I had my singing lessons at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and was a performance major. The idea was that afterwards I would go on to do post graduate studies. Those plans came unstuck when I went to Africa and fell in love with it! I had been so privileged to have a safe secure upbringing but Africa really opened my eyes to the wider world including to poverty and human rights abuse. From that moment my attention changed from centre stage Covent Garden to a deep desire to do something for people. I changed direction totally, stopping singing almost overnight – which I regret now to some extent.
What were you doing before this role?
I began my career in publishing but quickly moved into the voluntary sector. I have worked in many different areas, from academic think tanks to charities supporting people with a disability or who work internationally. Directly before joining Bowel Cancer UK, I was an independent consultant for five years which I enjoyed. I specialised in strategy, fundraising and communications and of course did lots of evaluations too. I was also the interim CEO of the Welsh Refugee Council for a while.
I was very fortunate to have lots of really interesting work yet had the flexibility to spend more time with my children and support my husband who was newly diagnosed with leukaemia.
However, my favourite employer before Bowel Cancer UK was the Refugee Council, I started working there as a fundraiser and eventually ended up setting up a new programme looking at the root causes of refugee producing situations and asylum in the West. I spent some time in the Balkans after the conflicts there and was deeply moved by the stories of bravery and terrible suffering. In fact I was in Bosnia visiting families still trying to return to their homes, living in terrible conditions but with such dignity and pride on 9-11. It was a terrible insight into what was to come.
So what draws my passion for human rights and refugees together with my passion to raise awareness of bowel cancer? People and their amazing ability to overcome adversity and a personal desire to help where I can and where it’s appropriate to do so.
What kind of career path have you followed? Did you have a plan or react to events?
When I was in my 20s and early 30s I had a more obvious career path – I wanted to rise up through the ranks and to be a Director of Fundraising and Communications, which I achieved. Then life happened and I moved into consultancy to try and get some balance and since then my career has been governed by personal events in my life, where my skills, experiences and interests converge. I think what I enjoyed most about consultancy was that I was constantly being challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone which ensured I quickly extended my skill base.
I’ve finally discovered, now in my early 40s, that the most wonderful thing about getting older, is that I am much more able to accept that I’m actually quite good at some things and also feel just as fine about admitting that I will never be any good at some others! It’s a good place to be. Taking on a wide range of diverse projects as a consultant helped me find that out.
I’m also interested to discover that at this point in my life, I’m not very personally ambitious in terms of my career, but hugely ambitious in terms of my desire to do something of value. I have no choice but to work as I need to make a living, so if I am going to do so, it has to be something that is socially meaningful. If I’m honest sometimes my social conscience feels like a bit of a curse as I’m sure there must be an easier way to make a buck but I know I would lose interest pretty quickly! My husband and close friends would tell you I am very determined and driven and I think that is fair. When something has really grabbed my attention or needs to be done I am very focused and I will find a way to make it happen if I possibly can.
I know there will be a moment that it is right for Bowel Cancer UK that I move on, as I think new energy is important in a growing organisation, but at this moment I have no clear plan about what I will do next – no doubt something important will draw me in eventually.
Deborah, I’m pretty certain you must be an inspiration to many people, but who most inspires you?
I have been fortunate to work with some pretty inspirational people over the course of my career. In fact some of the people who have inspired me most have been those who have overcome terrible things in their own lives yet found a way to turn a negative into a positive. For example at the moment I am frequently moved by people who are touched by cancer either as a patient or care giver and who go on to provide support and hope to others. I find that deeply motivating and it makes me want to do more.
What would you do differently if you were to start again? If you could give your younger self some advice what would it be?
Perhaps the biggest thing I would like to change is that I’ve always been plagued by severe self-doubt and been really tough on myself with lots of negative self-criticism. I have a considerable expertise at identifying all the things I believe I have done wrong rather than allowing myself to enjoy successes.
Now a bit of that is a good thing, because it can keep you on your toes and I’m relieved to say that I am finally learning to channel it and turn it into a creative energy that enables me to achieve, but it has been a long hard battle. So I think I would like to give my younger self a good talking to, so that I could stop wasting so much time dealing with negative unhelpful emotions.
What is the secret of happiness for you?
Watching Bowel Cancer UK strengthen, thrive and grow makes me happy because it means we really have a chance to have the impact we want – to save lives from and support people through bowel cancer.
However it’s my family that makes me happiest of all. I have three beautiful children – boys of 16 and 14 and a little girl of 7. Watching them grown and turn into wonderful people makes me both proud and happy. Having enough time with them given the nature of my role and my daily five hour commute is difficult so time off with them is very precious.
If you could have any job you wanted (and you can’t choose your current one!) what would you absolute dream job be?
Now this is a difficult one. Before my husband was diagnosed with cancer I had wanted to pursue an international career as I have a passion for international development and human rights, but we are tied to this country because of his ongoing treatment so I’ve had to give that up for now.
However my dream job would probably have some type of international component – looking at the international dimensions of cancer would fascinate me as it is a growing global issue yet the infrastructure in so many developing countries is very limited. I would also be very interested in providing some training or mentoring to local charities in for example, Africa, to help them build their skills and build a sustainable local infrastructure. You never know one day, once the children have left home, perhaps I will finally enrol for VSO and spend a year or two pursing the dream!
What advice would you give to any woman looking to work within the voluntary/charity sector?
If having an opportunity to work with like-minded people and making a difference matter to you, then go for it, but be aware you would earn more in the City! One good way of finding out if it’s for you is to volunteer with a charity or two to get a feel of what they are like. Remember there is a big difference between the infrastructure of the very large charities and many of the smaller ones. You may find you get more boxed into a role in a larger organisation and they can be quite bureaucratic.
Smaller charities tend to be more flexible which means you can have the opportunity to get involved in a broader range of work, however the lack of resources can be extremely frustrating. It all depends on what style and role you would most prefer. Another reason volunteering can be helpful is that breaking into the charity sector can be difficult if you don’t have any experience so focusing on transferable skills and showing your commitment might help you stand out.
What’s your favourite saying/motivational quote/ fave book?
Can I cheat and have two favourite quotes?The first one is by Barack Obama, I love the sentiment in this and it rings very true to me:
‘Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.’
The second quote I’ve gone back to time and time again over the years, particularly when life has thrown me some tough challenges. It has always given me hope that things will get better and the courage to embrace challenges as a necessary part of living. It is from a longer section in ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran entitled ‘On joy and sorrow’:
‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.And how else can it be?The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.’
Deborah, thank you so much for your time, your honesty and your unstinting work for what is still one of the unsung charities. I guess when it comes to our bowels we’d rather not discuss it! But, having a had a bowel cancer scare myself last year I’m well aware that early detection and treatment is crucial. So, dear readers, please bookmark this link and share it widely. Thank you!
For more information on bowel cancer or on Bowel Cancer UK please visit www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk
Posted on November 17th, 2011 by Jane