Kay Boycott is just days into her new role at homelessness charity Shelter, and has already found herself on the front line following the departure of chief executive Adam Sampson earlier this month.
Unsurprisingly, the 39-year-old decided to skip the orientation period, in favour of leading negotiations with unions and reviewing budgets. A glance at her office suggests she has immersed herself in her new role. Boycott’s floor is covered in stacks of papers on housing investment, taxation and skills in the construction industry. Her window is plastered with yellow and blue Post-it notes featuring words such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘social enterprise’.
It is fortunate, then, that the tough Mancunian says she is motivated by the challenges of her new position. ‘I get a kick out of big, hairy, difficult problems,’ she says.
Boycott is not a third sector veteran, either. Her experience is limited to volunteer work with disabled and young people in east London. Despite this, colleagues say she has settled into her new role with ease.
They also, tellingly, refer to her as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Boycott’s elegant appearance, punctuated by a fondness for Jimmy Choos, is more glamorous than that of a typical charity comms officer. Yet her friendly demeanour does not quite mask a penchant for marketing-speak.
Boycott carved out her career in marketing working on brands including Quality Street and Johnson’s Baby before focusing on brand positioning and retail at Oxford Strategic Marketing. The Shelter role, she explains, proved a happy confluence of luck and planning. ‘I had been researching and talking to people in the sector for about 18 months when the Shelter job came up,’ she says. ‘I felt this was an ideal position for me to make the move into the not-for-profit sector full time.’
This is a risky time to kick-start a career in the voluntary sector. No industry is immune to the economic crisis, but charities are in an especially precarious position. The recession means their services are more in demand than ever, yet donations are in decline. Shelter is not exempt from these difficulties; last year it reported a £2m budget deficit and faced controversy when it announced several job cuts.
Thankfully, Boycott came into the role with realistic expectations. ‘Sometimes people go into the charity sector with an idealistic vision of wanting to help make the world a better place,’ she says. ‘This is a proper organisation. Idealism is going to wear off after a couple of days.’
Boycott’s natural tenacity will stand her in good stead at a time when some charities are expected to close. Even though
she is fully aware of the problems, she cannot help but look at the positives.
‘There will be an increasing professionalism because everyone will need to work harder to get money in and prove that money is working,’ she says. ‘In a way it’s an opportunity.’
Public interest in housing is sky-high, thanks to tumbling property prices and a surge in foreclosures. These debates are
being held in an increasingly broad public arena. ‘That can only be good for us and we need to exploit it,’ says Boycott.
Remaining positive, she claims limited resources can simplify a job because this forces one to prioritise: ‘At the moment we’re focused on three million homes and repossession.’ Boycott is referring to Shelter’s goal of ensuring the Government keeps its promise of building three million homes by 2020 and helping people avoid losing their homes.
The first step for these campaigns is to reach out to key players in the housing industry, politicians, government departments and local authorities to make sure they are aware of the issues. Ever pragmatic, Boycott accepts talking the talk is not enough. She is keen to find economic solutions to solving the housing crisis.
Dealing with such a broad range of issues requires Shelter’s communications team to work with an array of audiences and stakeholders. Thankfully, Boycott has the organisational skills to cope. Shelter’s finance director Dheepa Balasundaram jokes Boycott’s juggling skills are such that she would make a great circus performer.
Former colleague Jill Hilliard, director at Oxford Strategic Marketing, says Boycott manages to accomplish so much by setting herself goals that she follows through methodically. ‘She has a five-year life plan she updates every year,’ says Hilliard.
This level of detail means Boycott is able to manage the punishing demands of a hectic schedule that includes work, play and motherhood. ’I’ve got to,’ she says. ‘It’s the only way to stay sane.’
Kay Boycott’s turning points
What was your biggest career break? About five years ago I randomly applied to be a board member of an NHS trust.
Working at the Hammersmith & Fulham Primary Care Trust for two-and-a-half days a month has been incredibly interesting.
It got me outside the commercial sector and was the stepping stone to this role in not-for-profit.
What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder? You need to have a real breadth of skills, particularly in this environment. Put your hand up for opportunities even if they seem tangential to what you’re doing, because you’ll use the skills you learn later on.
Have you had a notable mentor or influence? Jill Hilliard, a colleague at Oxford Strategic Marketing. There are those who are good at managing people and those who are excellent in their day jobs. She is great at melding the two and I aspire to that.
What do you prize in recruits? An ability to get excited about new ideas but maintain a sense of practicality. Ideas on their own are not enough. You have to deliver.
2009 Director of communications, policy and campaigns, Shelter
2004 Non-executive director and chair of audit committee, Hammersmith & Fulham Primary Care Trust
1999 Director, Oxford Strategic Marketing
1994 Senior product manager, then senior business account manager, then group controller, Johnson & Johnson
1991 Assistant brand manager, then national account executive, Nestlé Rowntree