Chris Gray does a job which mixes absolute joy and tragedy, as Tom Keighley finds out
Chris Gray says the past 12 months have been the most interesting of her 30-year career.
Her current job was one she apparently “fell into”. It’s an understated line which belies the tenacity and ambition which really landed her the post of head of fundraising at the Children’s Heart Unit Fund (CHUF).
Having left school to enter the civil service at the age of 16, the ambitious Chris progressed through roles in the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and the Child Support Agency.
But a secondment opportunity would steer her onto her current trajectory.
Chris explained: “The aim was to go off, build new skills in a different business sector and return back to your post to put them to use.
“It turned out there was reshuffle at the Civil Service while I was away. They said if I could find a permanent role, they would support me in moving over. Looking back it was a great opportunity for me because I had a hand in building The Prince’s Trust in the region.”
Chris moved into a business development role with the charity and was instrumental in securing the backing of regional corporates. Her time at the national charity spanned five years – in which time she became fundraising manager and eventually head of fundraising.
While contrasting to the more commercial roles in the civil service, fundraising was an area not unfamiliar to Chris as a lifelong supporter of numerous charities.
Checking her LinkedIn profile one day she came across a message from an enthusiastic recruiter – keen to meet for coffee. She obliged, and succeeded in what was the first stage of a two-part interview for her current role at the CHUF.
It was the first time Chris had been head-hunted. The organisation wanted a mix of personality and fundraising aptitude.
Chris explained: “Jobs in this sector are unique because you have to balance good fundraising with ability to work with families who are going through extremely difficult circumstances where children’s lives are at risk.
“Families will tell you all sorts of things about their journey. You need to be sensitive and you also need a good memory because this is a people job. Account management is hugely important.”
Chris confesses she isn’t one to stay in a job for long, and likes a renewed challenge. In that respect the CHUF gig was perfectly timed. It coincided with a period of re-strategising for the charity; an opportunity for Chris to apply the skills learned on the job at the Prince’s Trust and make her mark in a new setting.
She introduced her own brand of strategic fundraising. She explained: “Bag packing and bucket shaking has its place, but when resources are tight you need to be clever. Spending your time on an application to a family or corporate trust can be more effective.”
Chris has to cover her own salary before CHUF starts to accumulate any money. She’s now looking for a fundraising manager to support her. The candidate will be tasked with generating at least three to four times their own salary.
She explained: “It’s tricky because this is a relatively hard sector to break into. There isn’t a course you can go on and come out the other end as a fundraising manager. I’m looking for someone with three years experience.
“You can definitely train people to fund raise but if they haven’t got the personality to match, they won’t get far. It can’t be all about sales, it’s much subtler than that. It’s about relationship management and people skills. In fundraising you need to work with people over quite a long period of time. You can’t work with an organisation then leave it for a year before getting back in touch to ask ‘what are you going to contribute now?’ Some organisations that I’ve worked with I now consider to be great friends.”
You get the impression that Chris’ people skills would stand her in good stead in many other professions. A belief that life is cyclical means she rarely forgets a face, and she is still close to many former colleagues. In a serendipitous twist one youngster she helped into business through her time at the Prince’s Trust is now helping to rejuvenate the CHUF website.
Connexions like this are Chris’ forte. She regularly meets her counterparts in other charities to compare notes and work out mutually beneficial activities. More recently the art of networking turned Chris on to social media.
She explained: “I used to be terrible at social media, much to the annoyance of my children, but in the last year or so I’ve really started to realise just how important social media is, especially in this role. All of a sudden I’m being tweeted by people who are in the middle of raising thousands of pounds for CHUF.”
It’s not just about relationships on the outside. If she’s not accompanying a nurse on a visit to one of the unit’s youngsters, she might be relaying her strategy to CHUF’s board of nine trustees. Half are medical staff, including top cardiologists, and half are parents of children who have benefitted from the unit.
She’s one of the few non-medical staff that frequent the unit and that means being able to talk-the-talk when it comes to explaining the unit’s highly specialised work.
By chance, a fascination with the human anatomy had led Chris to study towards an A-level in the subject via night classes. Many years later she still draws on this knowledge to inform the day job.
“When you’re showing someone a £70,000 Berlin Heart it would be foolish if you couldn’t explain what it’s doing,” she said.
The ability to talk authoritatively on the unit’s medical work is crucial to Chris’ fundraising success.
She explained: “It’s very easy to showcase where their pounds are going in a charity like CHUF. I can bring a party of corporates through the ward and show them the work that’s going on.
“The companies can’t fail to be inspired by what they see. It’s then my job to guide them from there. They might have ideas about how they will tackle fundraising and how much to aim for, and I can match that with what’s needed.”
Since CHUF has had very small resource until now, Chris is mindful that her efforts to raise the organisation’s profile over the last 12 months have painted it as newcomer, when in reality CHUF has existed for more than 30 years. As the charity’s first head of fundraising she feels an acute sense of duty to all involved.
It’s also a duty she feels towards her colleague Lorraine Embleton, who Chris describes as the “backbone” of CHUF.
The organisation’s latest success, which Chris has played a key part in, is the successful funding of the unit’s new “home from home” at the Freeman Hospital. The £1.9m Scott House development is not unlike a boutique hotel, as Chris enthuses. It’s there for the families of children who need to be on hand around the clock. It’s already oversubscribed but Chris is excited to be able to show visitors around the impressive looking facilities where families have relaxation space, kitchen facilities and children’s play areas.
Chris explained: “The feedback on Scott House has been tremendous. Anything can happen in a unit like ours, and families need to be on hand at all times. We’re just a stone’s throw from the hospital doors here – I’ve seen people running across in the middle of the night, in onesies.”
The 18-bedroom development was opened by Alan Shearer and Ant and Dec – three of CHUF’s four prominent patrons, which also includes multi-millionaire businessman Graham Wylie. Chris says CHUF is “lucky” to receive such celebrity support. She has to co-ordinate CHUF events with their diaries up to a year in advance – but the impact is worth it – not just through the publicity generated but in the delight it brings to children in the unit.
Chris’ sense of achievement and her resounding positivity is tempered only by one sobering thought.
“It hasn’t happened so far, but it’s always in the back of my mind,” she said.
Her own Gateshead household is full with four children, but she’s got to know some of the unit’s children and families very intimately. Given the sometimes precarious nature of their situation, she is mindful there will likely be tragedy along the way.
“I’m quite sure that somewhere along the way it will happen, it’s inevitable. It just shows this job is about so much more than the cash fundraising.”
Chris says always keen to find a new challenge. Something suggests this one might be harder to leave behind.
My Working Day
- 6.45am: Prepare breakfast, packed lunches.
- 7.15am: Shower, make up, pick out today’s outfit.
- 7.45-8.15am: Check phones, iPad and laptop.
- 8.15am: Set off for the office.
- 9-10 am: Catch up with the team, plan today’s priorities – ensure all papers are in order for this week’s meetings, review today papers.
- 10-11 am: Visit the Children’s Heart unit at Freeman hospital, undertake a tour of the ward with one of our corporate supporters, followed by coffee to discuss our fundraising plan ahead.
- 11-12 noon: Catch up with the ward staff and our parents/supporters to review CHUF activity. Visit Cashiers office and sort out invoices.
- 12 noon: Return to the office, short lunch (if time allows!) Catch up on e mails, respond to supporter requests. Contact current supporters to book in review meetings.
- 1-5pm: Review applications for our new post – fundraising manager.
- 5pm: Onwards review next steps for week ahead.
- 6pm: Head home – takes 15 minutes when traffic is light. Time for gym and swim.
What car do you drive? Audi TT
What’s your favourite restaurant? The Botanist – great team, great food and fantastic support for CHUF
Who or what makes you laugh? Micky Flanagan
What’s your favourite book? Anything written by John Grisham
What was the last album you bought? Sam Smith
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Interior designer
What’s your greatest fear? Heights
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Always be true to yourself
And the worst? “As a woman I wouldn’t advise you look for promotion”. It only spurred me on further.
What’s your poison? Port and cheese
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? Daily Mail
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £8 working in a supermarket
How do you keep fit? Swimming, gym, walking, badminton
What’s your most irritating habit? Talking too much
What’s your biggest extravagance? Clothes
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Karren Brady
Which four people famous people would you most like to dine with? James Stewart, Richard Branson, Micky Flanagan, Karren Brady