Updated: Oct 15, 2021
In the first of our exciting series of podcasts interviewing some of the most interesting leaders in the charity sector, we talked to Simon Blake, the CEO of the social enterprise Mental Health First Aid (England), who have a vision to improve the mental health of the nation. In the last year alone they have enabled over 133,000 people to become trained in mental health, which will save lives across the country.
Simon is an amazing leader in the charity sector, having helped grow many different charities in his career and works tirelessly to ensure fairness, equality, mental health and a more inclusive society are at the forefront of the nation's minds.
In this interview, Simon explains the benefits of working closely with other social enterprises and charities, why having a network that expands outside of the charity sector is vital and how you need to embrace sales & marketing in a charity, because it helps you make the money that lets you help a wider range of people, as he puts it, being proud of your profit!
Not a Natural?
“How did you become a leader of a charity? I wasn't supposed to be!”
By his own admission, Simon was never supposed to be a charity leader. He was going to be an educational psychologist but he never settled into things and actually ended up working in a pub! But it is clear from an early age that he was destined to follow a career that looked to help others, volunteering as a youngster where he quickly learned about equality and discrimination.
He had been through various charities before becoming CEO at Brook, a charity aimed at ensuring healthy lives for young people, where he achieved a lot in 10 years before moving to the National Union of Students and then to his current role at MHFA (England).
To further support the narrative that Simon is dedicated to helping others, he spent 6 years as vice-chair at Stonewall and at any point is probably an unpaid trustee for 2-3 organisations. This is probably the first key point that comes from our fascinating conversation with Simon
Variety is Important
A common theme from a lot of the leaders we have spoken to is about having a well-rounded background and to be working with a lot of different organisations. Simon strongly believes that doing a variety of roles, both paid and unpaid, is important for leadership in the charity sector. The more organisations you are able to work with, the more you learn.
You improve on a personal level, but also your business can learn as well.
"A hallmark of the charity sector is that there is a lot of collaboration and partnership"
He firmly believes that the best way for all social enterprises and charities to thrive is by working together. This is obviously a difference from the more competitive commercial world, where competition is to be destroyed, not collaborated with.
Look After Yourself
As the head of a mental health charity, the conversation naturally covered the subject of mental health and its importance to a leader in charity. Like a lot of leaders, Simon looks like a workaholic to his partner and friends. The difference for him is that his job is also his purpose, something he has a passion for. To him, it doesn't feel like work
This is something you will find in all charity leaders, the passion they have for their role means they don't mind doing a lot more work. It’s part of why they all seem to be involved in at least 3 or 4 organisations at one time!
“People will often talk about work/life balance and I would argue it's really about balance and work needs to fit within your balance”
But it is important to find that balance. As a sector, charity must not accept its ok to never switch off. Your work might be the thing you love but that’s not an excuse for martyrdom. In his top tips, Simon made it very clear that it is vital to find time to look after yourself – for him, that’s playing with his dog and running.
The Pandemic Changed Everything – But It's Not All Bad
As a social enterprise that relies on selling a service to generate profits that they use for those in need, the pandemic was clearly a scary time but like all the great leaders in the charity sector, Simon used the time to make massively positive changes to MHFA (England) that leaves them in a stronger place long term.
On March 16, very little training was online. By March 23rd they had started doing training online in earnest and within 3 months they could deliver all the main courses online and now all courses are available.
It’s a great example of a leader taking a situation and making the best of it. The results certainly support this as they measure knowledge & confidence before and after training and the metrics have been maintained between the offline and online training courses.
Great leaders in the charity sector were always likely to find positives – they have such a passion for what they do, they never give up and let the situation beat them.
The Business of Running a Charity
Simon was very clear in his interview – you need money to make an impact.
They are a trading organisation that sells training and seeks to make a profit, so they can help those that cannot afford it. As he puts it…
"We make profit with pride"
And you need sales & marketing to make money.
Marketing is core to running MHFA (England), so people understand what they do and why it's different from commercial providers. As a social enterprise, you have to make tough decisions with your budgets – what proportion goes into growing your revenues vs helping people.
You also need to think about client experiences. It is often hard to compete against businesses with bigger budgets in this area, but that cannot be an excuse. However much people like your cause, ultimately the product/experience must be very close to the commercial competitor.
A lot of the people interviewed spoke about how charities must get better at looking for the bargains, looking for the deals – as one person put it, never be too proud, you need to beg, borrow and steal to survive as a charity. Simon has a slightly different slant on this.
He doesn’t advocate compromising on quality, because quality will generate more money in the long run. He believes you invest in good people and actually because of your charity status, you’ll likely find better people cheaper than a commercial business – if they believe in the cause.
“We shouldn't take it as a badge of honour that charity works on the cheap”
It Can Be Lonely At The Top – If You Allow It To Be
It is always lonely as the leader of any organisation but its different in a charity. It's the weight of your decisions and how they affect other people's lives. As a CEO you are responsible for all staff & shareholders, but as a social enterprise CEO, it's all the potential people you could be helping that are your responsibility as well.
But support exists and people need to actively seek it out.
For example, Simon was part of a special WhatsApp group of charity leaders that have supported each other throughout the pandemic. He also has a board and chairman that have been great – it is important they are a good support network for any charity leader.
“I used to run long distances and when I did my legs would hurt and I recognised this and stopped. We need to do the same with our mind”
Three Big Takeaways
Throughout this podcast series, we have asked our leaders to supply their top three tips for aspiring leaders. As you might expect, Simon came up with three excellent ones.
Have a great support network around you. Make sure you have connections outside of charity. People think differently from you and you’ll learn from that
Ensure you have either a coach or a mentor (or both!) – they are a safe space to talk
Look after yourself. Simon goes horse riding, walks his dog and runs. Find what that is for you
Bonus tip - Turn off your work phone on a regular basis at home!
Tip number three was particularly key to us at Thirty Three Percent, as our mission when we set out on building our business was to help people find a work/life balance and Simon left us with one final gem to help people understand the importance of this.
Read all about the campaign for workplace culture change that Simon is leading https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/
Twitter - @MHFAEngland
To listen to Simon's interview in full, click through and download the podcast.