bckr | Rachel Hubbard: “Start early, start small”
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Rachel Hubbard: “Start early, start small”

Rachel Hubbard: “Start early, start small”

We recently welcomed Rachel Hubbard, currently leading the Social Impact sector at Saxton Bampfylde, to BCKR.

Saxton Bampfylde is now 32 years old, with the founder, Stephen Bampfylde, still involved.  They have always been focused on the non-profit world, charities and NGOs. Rachel leads the social impact sector.

Different headhunting firms operate different processes and for the candidate and headhunter this process can feel different depending on the type of organisation involved. Saxton Bampfylde does not operate through the ‘little black book’, or by relying on their database.  Their research-heavy model is very different.  They start with a clean bit of paper every time, talking to as many as 120 people for a non-executive search (150 for executive roles), asking the people they can think of who might be interested.  They can also create a mind map. That’s not to say they don’t use feedback from previous searches, or their database, but that is not the main focus. Probably one third to half would be people they haven’t spoken to before as they do try to challenge the brief.   A lot of roles need a lot of advocacy by the headhunter.  Especially the Chair roles currently.

She could fill her life with cups of coffee with potential candidates, but they don’t pay – headhunters need to work efficiently.  To get your first role, don’t look to the search firms – find someone who can introduce you to an organisation.  Can you do voluntary work, or consultancy for an organisation? Start early, start small.  Be seen to be have thought about the voluntary sector before claiming to be able to offer much to them.

Search firms have to win the work like any business.  Their marketing focus is on potential business, not candidates.  They need to look for their clients, and attract them, finding outwhat motivates them, what interests them, who they know, in order to build that trusted adviser status.  She sees this relationship building as similar to the role of a lawyer winning clients.  Become knowledgeable, listen and then come back and advise. When dealing with headhunters remember this.  Once you’ve established yourself, remind them who you are, making it simple and concise, and don’t expect a cup of coffee.

The briefing process from the client is very important in any search.  They don’t often hear “We want a lawyer”, unless the organisation has historically had a lawyer on their board, when repeat lawyers are often valued.

They generally operate to a 12 week process.

Skills audits: before the board makes an appointment they will do a skills audit to work out what they want on the board as a whole, and what they’re missing.  This exercise often makes clients very clear on what they’re after, so the simple database search won’t get the headhunter very far, as it’s the combination of skills that the client will be looking for.  Often, therefore, the headhunter is already trying to amass two or three separate skills into the pot, and it’s unlikely to be law.

Real interest isn’t enough, often something has to resonate. For example, for a homeless children’s charity or a charity for children in care, being “interested in children” is not enough, whatever the professional day job.  It requires something else in the candidate’s life – have they had real life experience of adoption, living in care etc? See if there are ways that make your application stand out.

Start early and do things on a voluntary basis to build experience but also credibility.

One highly sought-after skill: income generation relevant to that organisation. Can you make them more connected with major donors? Do you have experience of winning grants, or giving/winning large contracts akin to those of the organisation? Can you extend their network? etc.  All these could bring money into the organisation.

Another useful skill: can you offer consumer insight – marketing generally, HR, or legal experience – in their sector? Knowledge of stakeholders in that organisation is highly prized.

Who is the competition?

People who can write an application which speaks to the client.  A great CV and a letter that conveys understanding of the motivation for the organisation. If the CV alone shows the candidate is not competent, she often gives up, but clients often focus as much on the letter.

She’s astonished that even when 150 people write applications for chairing a huge charity, often captains of industry, their applications are poor, they convey no evidence for why the organisation should choose the individual.   You must explain “Why on earth they should choose me?” and provide evidence. Get someone else to read the CV and letter first – many clearly don’t.


Lawyers – can you write a CV which is not prose or discursive, and instead looks like a business CV which demonstrates your management experience? It’s a good idea to bring it alive with numbers – this is very important.  Ensure your CV is no longer than 2 pages.

To be a convincing non-executive trustee, you must demonstrate on paper and in any meetings that you are someone who is comfortable with ambiguity, realising that decisions are often made for the broader social good and which are counter to your sense of logic. The organisation may act against your own better judgement, so it is vital you appreciate the varied motivations of those around the table.  It can be emotionally charged.  You have to be up for this and ready for bold decisions being made without all the data or evidence necessarily always there.  This can be challenging for those with careers based on evidence and facts.

People choose people.  It’s a privilege to be chosen as a trusted adviser, or trustee – there needs to be an affinity, since much unpaid time will be spent with that individual over a number of years.  Arrive with a low ego and show empathy.

What’s your USP? Provide evidence that volunteering is something you do.

Make it easy for people to contact you. Do you really want to work in the non-profit sector? Are you up for the challenges this can bring?  These organisations can come at the world from a very different place.  Despite this, diversity of viewpoint and, essentially, collaboration are hugely valued.

The stakeholders’ viewpoint can be the one that has the final say in a decision.  Ultimately a charity must focus on their mission.  A good lawyer trustee may be good at remembering to bring a discussion back to these first principles.

Skills audit: Will not include lawyers! But it will include governance… not commenting on the minutes, but trying to bring proportion to the whole area in the press spot light at the moment.  Need to think where you will fit in.  The governance of charities is getting closer and closer to corporate position.  The instincts of the lawyer to question things is still good. The questions you can raise about the what-ifs, asking about the consequences of a decision being made, clarity around how decisions will fall.

Are there templates for a skills audit?

Yes. Charity commission website provides them. Will vary by type of organisation.  Grant giving body will look very different from housing association, NGO etc.  To some extent they mirror the executive skills of the organisation.

What makes a good cover letter?

Opening paragraph, where it says in a nutshell why what you do is remarkable and why you can add value. Show you’re  keen and excited and that it’s not all about you.

Are there differences in process etc. between paid and unpaid roles?

Not really, but a commercial organisation can have a simple more streamlined process with fewer involved.  Very few other differences.

Would you expect a panel interview?

Yes, four to five panel members.  Don’t presume anything.  Do your research.  What will be will be.  Panels don’t necessarily know each other, have gathered quickly in advance, but may well ask really tough questions addressing really tough issues.  Don’t be fazed.

Charities also consider whether there are stakeholder groups accessible who can join in the interviewing too.  If so, this will often be used and their views will be very important.  The insights from that group are often aligned with the more analytical process of the trustees

Interviews: Don’t talk at people.  Don’t knock them flat.  Get on and have a well argued intellectual debate and critically, come up with consensus. Most organisations are sceptical about those who’ve had no exposure to the non-profit sector but think they can nonetheless waltz in and make an impact.  Start early.

Starting points:  Samaritans volunteering.  Reading sessions in a school.  Giving time to sector.  School governor.  Mentoring and outreach programmes for clients. Talk giving.  When boards can see that you’ve taken the time despite busy careers etc. it shows real interest.

Good CVs? Pages of prose are really unhelpful.  Hard if you haven’t got much beyond legal work.  Therefore, make it look like a business CV.  Clear statement of your organisation and roles.  Bullet points, not paragraphs, two pages max, keep numbers in it, bring forward the volunteering side, don’t hide it away e.g. leadership role in your church etc. The bits of your day job that people don’t realise are important.

Letter: Spell client right! Tone is critical, often there’s too much “I”, not enough heart.  Need a story that builds empathy.

Interview coming up… how do you get a sense of the organisation before interview? What interaction can you hope for?  Many will build in a conversation with a decision maker to allow you to ask questions etc.  Do ask for this if not offered.  Remember the individual decision maker will also be making judgements at that meeting.  As for auditors etc. wait until the right late stage of the process. By short-list time it’s often about fit rather than the not skill set, hopefully, if the headhunter has done their job well.  This is even more important in a non-profit than a commercial organisation.

The pool of candidates is probably not as strong if no headhunter has been involved in the process, and the pool is harder to get into if you are not in the right network.

SaxBam’s appointments lately have been comprised of 53% women, 38% bme, but the diversity afforded by the socio-economic background is also critical … Much harder to see from the CV itself.  Life experience is able to add something very different which a board may value.

Lots of digital skills required at the moment in searches.  It’s easier to attract those individuals as they don’t dwell on their personal accountability.  But the operational end of delivering services is much harder.