Charity Awards 2024

Ruth Sutherland: “The real skill to leadership is that you should see the garden, but never see the gardener”

Ruth Sutherland talks to Stephen Cotterill about nurturing talent and a lifetime of fighting social injustice.

A person’s career and the way they develop as a leader can often be traced back to their formative years. For Ruth Sutherland, her early experiences growing up in Brightlingsea, Essex, have shaped a lifetime of fighting social injustice and inequality.

Ruth Sutherland, recipient of the 2022 Daniel Phelan Award for Outstanding Achievement

“I grew up in a house that was rich in art and politics,” she says, recalling her childhood with her three siblings. “Both my parents were artists. It was an unconventional and progressive household but there were a lot of difficulties – mental health problems, stigma, and social exclusion. It was a family under a lot of stress.”

Even at that young age – looking around at her family, her neighbourhood, the streets where she grew up – she could see injustice. “I remember thinking even as a small child that life is just not fair. It’s not right. And it’s got to change. That has really shaped my entire career; although it took me quite a long time to work out how I would be an agent for that change.”

By the time Sutherland reached school age, her upbringing and political groundings started to manifest in a rebellious streak. “I hated school with a passion. It made no sense to me. I was used to a lot of freedom. How could children sit in one place all day, being told what to do? I started modelling my father’s campaigning. I argued that wearing a school uniform was an abuse of human rights and that my maths teacher practiced misogyny by sitting the clever boys at the front of the class. Rules were never my thing.”

When her grandma and auntie became sick, she left school to become a full-time carer, which led eventually to her looking for a job with the NHS. “I enquired about nursing work at Colchester General Hospital but of course, I had no qualifications, so I took a job as a cleaner instead. I loved it. I loved being with the patients and the whole hospital community.”

After some encouragement from a senior nurse, Sutherland did her training and qualified as a nurse. But her ingrained sense that the status quo had to change soon resurfaced. “I was questioning everything all the time: Why are we doing this? Why does it have to be that way? What can we do differently? But nurses are not supposed to ask why – they’re supposed to follow instructions, protocols and procedures. I felt I had to take on a new challenge to achieve what I needed to do.”

Different career path

That challenge was a substantial one. Confronting her previous struggles with the education system, Sutherland applied to do a degree, eventually graduating with a double first in sociology and social administration from Warwick University. She then moved to Northern Ireland, where her husband is from, to do a master’s degree in health promotion from the University of Ulster.

Sutherland thought she would return to the NHS but an opportunity arose working on the European anti-poverty programme, which set her career on a whole new path. “That was really my first look into the charity sector. We were working in community development in an area of huge deprivation at the height of the Troubles. The failings of the public health policy were stark. The messaging from Westminster around Northern Ireland’s high rates of heart disease was simply that everyone should stop smoking and stop eating the wrong things. And that was it – that was the public agenda for health. But these people were living in absolute poverty and dodging bullets on a daily basis.

“The mismatch between what the health service was supposed to be doing and what was needed was night and day. So I took a leap of faith and set up the Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) – a charity to explore the community development approaches to addressing inequalities in health. It was an unusual time in the political landscape. Funding for community development in England was being cut because it didn’t fit the political agenda at the time, but in Northern Ireland, it was being championed because it was seen as an alternative to people getting involved with paramilitary activity.”

Sutherland was also a trustee of the Community Foundation NI around 1999, just as a peace agreement was drawing near. This led to close contact with the political and religious forces exerting power in local communities. “I was also chair of the Newry & Mourne peace and reconciliation partnership and both had the task of trying to broker peace and reconciliation at community level using significant amounts of European money. We had to decide which community projects we could fund that would contribute most to the peace process. I became chair of a subcommittee that comprised both victims and perpetrators of violence and my job was to try to get them to agree on who to fund. Discussions were often very heavy and heated, but some of the projects we funded have proved to be very successful.”

This is part of Sutherland’s lasting legacy from that period, with CDHN now Northern Ireland’s leading organisation working to empower communities, improve health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities using a community development approach. “The most satisfying part is that, 25 years on, the charity is thriving and, although I was a founding director, they probably don’t even know who I am.”

Transformational change

CDHN was the start of a long and impactful career in the charity sector, including senior posts at Rethink, Alzheimer’s Society, Scope, Relate and finally Samaritans, which earned Sutherland a CBE in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List for service to vulnerable people and a Royal College of Psychiatry President’s Medal for her work with people with mental illness.

The unifying theme of Sutherland’s work at these charities has been structural reform. “In all my senior roles, the main work has been around transformational change. That was the thing that really lit my fire.”

At Samaritans, where she was CEO for five years from 2015-20, the challenges were organisation-wide. “Samaritans desperately needed to change to keep pace with its beneficiaries. There had been a palpable five-year decline in service delivery, and a steady fall in the number of volunteers, with 90% of those coming forward never completing training. I had to consider what I could do to change that trajectory. When you’re trying to make a change, you have to start with the top; you have to start with the governance. So we got really into the guts of the organisation and came up with a transformation programme.”

As a federated charity, with 20,000 volunteers and over 200 independent branches, Samaritans had a complicated and unwieldy governance model including a board of 200 people that met twice a year. After a successful fundraising campaign to raise the £8m needed to put a transformation plan into action, Sutherland set about streamlining the structure, bringing more services online and introducing digital training for volunteers. This removed a lot of the back-office work from the individual branches and made governance more efficient.

“Of course there was resistance – there always is to new ideas,” she says. “The value of this model of charity is that you’ve got local power and that makes it exciting for volunteers, but they don’t have the resources to manage infrastructure such as brand, technology, learning and development, which are things that are better value at scale. So it was all about trying to broker a new relationship between central operations and the branches.”

She also realised immediately that some of the charity’s policies on service-user confidentiality amounted to safeguarding risks, but convincing longstanding Samaritans devotees of this in the days before safeguarding was really a thing, was no easy task.

To succeed, Sutherland knew she needed to build credibility with the frontline volunteers. “In a federated charity, nobody does what you say because of hierarchy. They do what you want them to if you can inspire them and bring them with you.”

This insight prompted Sutherland to become a Samaritan listening volunteer while she was CEO. “I have lived experience of mental health issues at home and of childhood trauma, so this was a personal challenge as well. It helped hugely with some of the more difficult conversations I had to have with local volunteers. I wasn’t just the woman in the suit; I was someone who had a family history and who understood what it means to be a volunteer. I was one of them.”

This leadership approach paid off. By the time Sutherland left Samaritans, income had increased 40%; nine digital projects had been completed; and volunteer learning and development had been overhauled, including much more stringent safeguarding practices. In addition, a brand refresh helped to extend Samaritans’ reach to key audiences such as younger people, with web traffic increasing by 18% in 2019-20 and social media up 81%.

Courage and opportunity

It has taken a lot of courage for someone from Sutherland’s background to achieve what she has in the sector. Her unconventional upbringing, class, gender and lack of early education meant that she was atypical of the senior leadership demographic within the sector at that time. “At the start of my career, I found the class barriers quite intimidating. Most of the leaders in the sector were white men with Oxbridge backgrounds, who had huge amounts of confidence. I found it really difficult at the beginning to talk to them as an equal, but I worked through it. The courage to do that came from wanting to do my best for the beneficiaries. If I couldn’t make a difference in the lives of the people who the charities work for, stand up to the exclusion, unfairness and discrimination they faced, then I shouldn’t be doing the job. That gave me courage.”

Sutherland is quick to add that it was the people around her that created the opportunities for her to be brave and succeed. “I have been so fortunate that there have been people along the road that have seen something in me, encouraged me and created an opportunity for me. I’ve tried to do my best to respond to the opportunity because I value it. Certainly, as a young person – that person who cleaned hospitals for a living – I wasn’t the type of person who would put up my hand and say ‘what about me?’. It had to be somebody else who created the opportunity for me.”

Ever-appreciative of these life-changing chances, Sutherland has looked to mentor and develop the people around her throughout her career. “I’ve always tried to notice people and create opportunities for someone less likely to get them. There’s so much that people have to give that is often hidden from view. If you don’t give it a chance to come out, their talent may stay buried.”

A keen gardener, Sutherland uses a horticultural metaphor to offer insight into her leadership style. “The seed has everything in it that it needs to grow, you just have to know where to plant it and to give it the right nurturing to thrive. It’s about providing the right environment. Some plants need more attention than others, and some are constant, but you still have to look after them. The real skill to leadership is that you should see the garden, but never see the gardener.”

Future challenges

With a fresh perspective gained from semi-retirement, what does Sutherland think are the challenges facing the charity sector moving forward?

“Charities currently are becoming more and more the victims of a hostile political climate and short-term thinking. I saw it with the NHS where there was a long period where blame culture was pervasive and people were terrified to say they had made a mistake because it was a very punitive environment. And I can now see increased policing and monitoring happening in the charity sector. This hinders learning and development. Of course, we need to weed out any bad apples, but we need a supportive, critical friendship with government and the regulator to help us do better. And we need a clear strategic direction. Charities don’t work on five-year election cycles.”

Sutherland says that Covid showcased the best of the sector, particularly among health organisations, and charities should learn from that. “We saw tremendous collaboration during the pandemic, between charities that would normally be rivals. When we worked together, our voice was much more powerful and I think collaboration is one of the keys to helping us overcome the challenges of the future. We are here to stay. We may change and morph into something different, but basically, we will always be here.”

The urge to effect change has not diminished since her formative years, and Sutherland remains actively involved both as a trustee of the Social AdVentures wellbeing social enterprise based in Salford and as company director of the Good Summit – an event-based activism platform founded at Trinity University, Dublin.

“I still want to create opportunities for people to come together and make lasting social change. That has been one of the key themes of my career and it will continue to be something I am passionately involved in.” Only now, perhaps with a little more time to spend in her garden.

Stephen Cotterill is the editor of Fundraising Magazine

The Ruth Sutherland years

  • 2022-now: Company director, the Good Summit
  • 2021-now: Chair, Social AdVentures Salford
  • 2020: Received CBE in the New Year’s Honours List
  • 2020-now: Trustee, Lloyd’s Bank Foundation
  • 2019: Awarded Royal College of Psychiatry President’s Medal
  • 2015-2020: CEO, Samaritans
  • 2015-2021: Trustee, Wildlife Trusts
  • 2015-now: Samaritans, listening volunteer initially Bexley and Dartford, from 2020 Newry, NI where also deputy director for training
  • 2012-2015: CEO, Relate
  • 2011-2012: Executive director of services, Scope
  • 2008-2010: Chief operating officer and then acting CEO, Alzheimer’s Society
  • 2005-2008: Northern Ireland director then UK director of services, Rethink
  • 1996-2005: Founding director and company secretary, Community Development and Health Network (NI)