Macmillan Cancer Support's Lynda Thomas trains her lens on comms

The charity chief says her background in comms means it is high on her agenda in helping Macmillan stand out.

Lynda Thomas only became CEO of charity Macmillan Cancer Support in early March. Even though she had been acting CEO since November, she is still seeing her job through fresh eyes. "The main difference between this and other roles is that you have to view the organisation through so many different lenses," she says.

Personnel, finance, property and day-to-day admin are just some of the elements she now has to consider in her huge organisation, with an income that last year hit £200m for the first time, 1,500 full-time staff and 9,000 affiliated medical staff.

But communication of all sorts probably remains her most imp­ortant focus. It is not exactly surprising considering that she is one of relatively few CEOs anywhere to have come up through the comms route.

The fact that she was head of comms at the charity for ten years before becoming head of fundraising – prior to taking over as CEO – suggests that the organisation itself sees communication not so much as its main objective but as the main tool it uses to achieve its objectives. "Because it is so important, I prioritise communications and give it whatever it needs," says Thomas.

For all its size and influence, Macmillan’s objectives remain very clear and very simple. Between one third and one half of the population will get cancer at some point. Macmillan wants to offer help. "Our aim, my vision, is to build an organisation that supports them. We need to be there for them in every way. We need to help their medical needs, their psychological and emotional needs. And we need to help them address what we call cancer poverty – the fact that one of the main pressures on sufferers can be affording rent or the mortgage while they are being treated."

This very clear aim is played out through a fiendishly complex set of target audiences. First there is the business of awareness, of letting cancer sufferers know that Macmillan exists and can help them. Social media, with the obvious advantages of being controllable and free, are playing an increasing role in this. So Macmillan has launched a website called The Source that lets people share advice and tips. The hope is that by giving them a forum, Macmillan can help them and they can help each other.

Then there is the matter of fundraising. "We have a wide range of products [fundraising schemes] and a huge number of volunteers," says Thomas. One of the biggest issues Macmillan faces is standing out from the other 164,000 charities, all of which have their story to tell and are busy telling it.

Not so long ago, charity comms were worthy, plucking our consciences and heartstrings before loosening our purse strings. Now Macmillan gets involved in more contemporary approaches such as last year’s ice bucket challenge, which raised £4.5m in contributions – as well as questions about how appropriate it is for charities to piggyback on ideas associated with other causes.

Another innovative use of social media is Macmillan’s Today programme, in which donors choose a day every month to be sent inspirational stories and celebrity content as a thank you. 

Then there are laws to be changed, budgets to be created and diverted and medical arguments to be made in comms with the Government, the NHS and health institutions. So in the run-up to the election Macmillan is running a campaign called Time To Choose aimed at making cancer care an election priority.

Lastly there is the task of keeping the 10,000 or more staff – Macmillan nurses, physios, GPs and social workers – all singing from the same hymn sheet. "Internal communications are massive for us," she says. "Get the right people doing the right things with the right support and we can achieve almost anything."

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