IWD 2022 Kate Heaps

‘Breaking the Bias’ in charity retail

07/03/2022 11:57

Kate Heaps, Chief Executive of Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice talks about her experience of ‘breaking the bias’ in charity retail.

I arrived in the charity world through my nursing background, joining Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice back in 2006. When I stepped up to become Chief Executive a few years later, one of the most daunting responsibilities was the leadership of our retail operation. Despite having retail in my family background, I really had no idea about the particular foibles of charity retail, the challenges of stock management and the sheer volumes that need to be sold in order to support our hospice mission to care for local dying people.

Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice operates 16 stores across two London boroughs (pictured: flagship Eltham store)

One of the other challenges I had to face was that initially at least, I was a relatively young woman with a predominantly male, older board and I had taken over from a man. I quickly learned that everyone thinks they are an expert in retail and fundraising, and throughout society, there is little recognition for the considerable skill and knowledge needed to develop the brand, manage stock, merchandising and logistics and drive revenue and profitability. Of course, I am not directly responsible for any of this and I delegate this to other colleagues, but when it came to championing trading and supporting our retail strategy, I needed to listen to the experts and advocate for them to get the right level of investment and support.

Throughout my now long service leading our organisation, I have gained in confidence and knowledge and honed my leadership style; but two events have enabled the greatest transformation in our retail operation; recruitment of our current Director of Income Generation and the appointment of a new Chair. Working with Aneta, we’ve accessed external expertise, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers ourselves, she’s led the development of our retail strategy and brand, and I’ve supported her to make sometimes quite difficult decisions as well as giving her the confidence to grow and develop her own knowledge. With Ruth our Chair, we’ve brought a much greater diversity to our board, not only has the gender diversity see-sawed in completely the opposite direction, we have a younger board, which is more ethnically diverse too. Most importantly though, we have actively recruited for specific skills, which included expertise in marketing, communications and income generation. We have recruited our first non-executive director for our new trading board and because of all of this; we are taking different risks, investing in our retail operation and seeing results in revenue and profitability. Frankly, I feel like our Hospice is finally thriving under the joint leadership of our renewed Board and the whole Senior Leadership Team, we are more collaborative, challenging, supportive and trusting and as a result we’re taking the right risks, investing and growing and developing at a much greater pace.

So having seen the benefit to retail of greater diversity in our board, we need to look across the Hospice as a whole and our trading arm to ensure that we are diverse throughout the whole team. We actually have quite a large number of women in our team including our Head of Retail and two of her deputies, but we have fewer women of colour than I would like to see, especially given our local population and our customer base. Our volunteering workforce is in general an older cohort of predominantly white women too, so I welcome the Kickstart initiative we are just beginning which will bring a new group of 18-25 year olds into our staff team.

Crucial to changing the profile of our Board was a new more transparent recruitment process, we advertised widely and were specific about the skills we were looking for as well as the time commitment we needed from any potential volunteer Trustees. If we are going to achieve a more diverse staff and volunteer team in retail, we are going to have to work harder to remove any bias from recruitment too. Volunteer recruitment needs to be more proactive, not reactive or just via word of mouth and for our retail staff we need to advertise more widely, provide more training opportunities for younger people and be as flexible as we can be to support women and men with younger children or caring responsibilities.

If we are successful in achieving a truly representative team, we will have a wider more diverse offer. If all of our community see themselves in our stores, they will want to donate as well as shop in them and they will tell their friends and networks, breeding success across our chain of shops, our e-commerce operation and our RePurpose initiative.

I am already proud of everyone in the team and everything we do in our retail operation, it is vital to the provision of the care we give, but I would be even prouder if we ‘broke the bias’ of charity retail to meet the needs of all sections of our community.

Kate Heaps
Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice
Most Supportive Chief Executive
Charity Retail Awards 2021