Lily Caswell, Head of Retail at Florence Nightingale Hospice talks about her journey through charity retail and the inspirational women who have influenced her along the way.
This June, I will celebrate having worked in charity retail for 20 years. I started as a Bookshop Manager for Oxfam at the time of The Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. As part of my interview, I had to visit the shop to meet the volunteers. Elise, one tiny but formidable volunteer, squared up to me and said ‘a girl can’t run a bookshop!’. Fortunately, I got the job and quickly proved – alongside some incredible women volunteers, including Elise – that girls certainly can run bookshops!
When I left the role two years later, I was part of the interview panel to find my replacement. Before the interviews, Elise took me aside to say ‘you will find us a girl, won’t you?’!
In the twenty years that I have worked in the sector – for four amazing charities – this was the only time that it was suggested that my gender might not make me a suitable candidate. I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a sector that provides opportunities to everyone – at every level of management – regardless of gender.
I have been inspired and benefited from the influence of some amazing women throughout my time in charity retail. I joined Oxfam at a time that Dame Barbara Stocking was CEO, and I have gone on to report directly to two women CEOs. It has never crossed my mind that women can’t get to the top.
For the last five and a half years, I have been the Head of Retail at Florence Nightingale Hospice Charity. Within the charity, the contribution and brilliance of women is all around, whether it’s the phenomenal nursing staff at the hospice; our team of incredible Retail Managers; or our namesake Florence Nightingale.
I studied history at university so I have always been interested in the history of the organisations that I have worked for. And so often, it was brave and determined women who led the way. At Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb was ever present as the incredible social reformer who set up the charity in 1919, and wrote the document that became the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Her work and legacy has saved thousands upon thousands of children’s lives.
Working for Florence Nightingale Hospice Charity, I can’t help but be interested in the work of Dame Cicily Saunders who founded the modern hospice movement. Or the work of our namesake Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing and one of the most famous women in British history.
Florence Nightingale, Eglantyne Jebb and Dame Cicily Saunders literally changed the world.
Our charity is built on the hard work and determination of a group of inspiring women in the 1980s, led by Barbara Lucas, who had seen her father die in a general hospital ward and wanted to create a dedicated space for dying patients to be cared for. They led a campaign to raise the modern day equivalent of £1.5million to build a hospice in the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital. This transformed care for terminally ill people in Aylesbury Vale.
The charity has continued the work of Barbara Lucas and those original fundraisers, and now funds hospice services each year to deliver care and support to local patients and their families, both in the Hospice itself and in the community. I am proud that the money raised by our shops funds this amazing work.
One of the very best things about working in charity retail is having the opportunity to work alongside our wonderful volunteers, so many of whom are women – strong, formidable and lovely women (just like Elise!). As well as giving the amazing gift of time, volunteers bring so much to our shops – experience, creativity, commitment and care. They make our shops the best they can be.
My last twenty years working in charity retail have been brilliant, and every day I feel fortunate to work in such an inclusive, supportive and exciting sector. I don’t know where my charity retail career will take me for the next twenty years. What I do know, is that I will be surrounded by, and inspired by, incredible women.
Head of Retail
Florence Nightingale Hospice