The MT Interview: Jasmine Whitbread of Save the Children

The hard-headed ex-PR who's just been made the 91-year-old charity's first international CEO...

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 01 Jul 2014

It's not the sort of start you expect from a charity chief. 'Rio Tinto Zinc,' says Jasmine Whitbread, boss of Save the Children, running through her early work experience. 'Began in marketing, moved to public relations.'

Public relations for Rio Tinto, the world's second-biggest mining group? When Whitbread started there - back in the 1980s - it was one of the most controversial and disliked multinationals around.

'Well, it just happened to be the company that would help pay the rent,' she smiles. 'I was working for its computer services division: just left university, it was hiring, got the job through a friend of a friend.'

Twenty-odd years down the line and here she is, aged 46, heading one of Britain's biggest charities and telling me what a lot she learnt back then, working for Rio Tinto and then Thomson Financial, the information technology group. Part of that was spent in Boston, from where she helped sell settlement software to stock market traders - yup, City wideboys.

And now she is just back from Niger, where she has been visiting Save the Children's team working with mothers and children there. 'The kids being saved, they are little miracles; then you see the mums' faces ...'

So, how lives change. Whitbread says she just had enough of working for big business, and knew - from her time doing VSO work in Uganda in 1990-92 - that she wanted to shift careers. So she spent six years at Oxfam, half of those in west Africa, and learnt her fieldwork. Then she moved to the centre, first as international director at Oxfam, then in 2005 becoming chief exec of Save the Children, one of its main UK rivals.

But back to a desk job? It's about optimising talents, says Whitbread coolly. 'I want to make as much difference as possible,' she says. 'That's my thing: to get one-plus-one to equal five.'

Whitbread has been boss of Save the Children for four years now, and it's getting hard to miss her. Tall, lean and blonde, she seems almost too glamorous to head such an earnest concern. Today, she's wearing a black silk shirt, black trousers, coiffed hair and the darkest of painted nails, but what strikes you is the motion. The hair swishes, the chunky-bangled bracelets shake, the nails drum an occasional tattoo on the table when she leans forward to make another joke. She is so restless, yet so instantly informal and to the point, that it's hard not to be impressed. No wonder we see a lot of her on television.

And yes, she knows she could be there for all the wrong reasons - firstly, she's a good-looking woman. 'Yeah, well, if you've got it, use it,' she says bluntly. 'But I wish it was as easy as you say. It's quite hard to persuade people to feature us. I work at it.'

Because Save the Children needs to be noticed? She nods. 'Every organisation needs a different kind of leader at different times, and that's part of what this organisation needs. Save the Children had gone off the radar.'

But maybe my surprise is terribly British. If she were running Medecins Sans Frontieres, we would expect a Gallic boss with some fashion flair. And it doesn't rub staff up the wrong way. Far from it, the charity workers I quizzed say they like a boss with elan, especially one who will get their organisation noticed in an increasingly cluttered world. They even like the fact that Whitbread pops up at places like Davos, the annual gathering of the corporate great and good, where she clearly feels comfortable.

Whitbread is a working mum who made her own way to the top, so many can relate to her, too. Born and brought up in Twickenham, daughter of a British Gas manager, she has no link whatsoever to the famous brewing dynasty of the same name - another misconception people sometimes tag her with.

'My grandfather was a baker, so we're more likely to be from a long line of bakers and get our name from that than brewing,' she laughs.

We meet at Save the Children's London base in Clerkenwell, a large glass-and-steel block rented off Standard Life, the investment giant. Whitbread walks ahead, showing me round the fund-raising floor, before descending to a meeting room in the basement. The decor is modern, the refreshments less so. No real coffee, no fancy teas. Whitbread laughs as I stumble through the lack of options. It's a charity, not an ad agency.

Save the Children is actually a grande dame of charities, 91 years old, with 4,500 staff, an annual income of £216m and a global reach that puts it to work in more than 40 countries. And over here - there are versions in 28 other countries - it is still best known for its long-standing link with Princess Anne, president since 1970, whose presence helps give the charity its rather posh image in the shires. The old joke used to be that many thought Anne actually ran it, so discreet have past chief executives been.

Whitbread giggles when I put that to her. In fact, Save the Children has done pretty well in clinging to its chiefs. Whitbread's predecessor Sir Michael Aaronson, ex-Foreign Office, headed the organisation for 10 years.

Aaronson brought the charity's disparate teams onto one site, and streamlined connections between volunteer fundraisers, regional managers and head office, giving the charity more of a corporate feel. That didn't always endear him to Save the Children's volunteer fundraisers outside London - a big income stream - who felt he made the organisation less enjoyable to work with.

There were also those problems of perception. Save the Children had started to seem dull and establishment-oriented compared to rivals such as Oxfam (60 years old), which had raced away in fundraising terms (£308m last year). Other international development charities, including the British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Actionaid and Plan International, were competing more vigorously for the same charity pound. Nick MacAndrew, Save the Children's former chairman of trustees - who appointed Whitbread - puts it simply: 'We were stuck in a rut. Jasmine helped move us out of that.'

Whitbread says her mission is to offer visible leadership. 'I knew when I came here that Save the Children was just as good on the ground, if not better, than Oxfam in places like Africa, but in the UK people had forgotten what it was. We were not getting our message across, and that was a real shame.'

What is the charity's message? And do we need so many charities? Wouldn't it make more sense to merge a few?

'Sure,' says Whitbread. 'If this were the corporate sector, there would be mergers, shareholders would push for efficiencies; but our stakeholders are not just looking for that. They are looking for values they can personally relate to. You might give to Save the Children and Christian Aid, but not feel well served if those back offices were merged. Then what do you stand for?'

Save the Christian Child? Whitbread laughs, then shakes her head. 'You would lose stakeholders. Having said that, we are part of a global family of 29 Save the Children charities run from different countries round the world, and we are in the middle of merging all our programme work, making huge cost savings. So instead of having five different Save the Childrens running programmes in Angola, we will co-ordinate that from the UK. In Nepal, Norway is running it. And so on.'

On top of that, UK charities - co-ordinated by the Disasters and Emergencies Committee (DEC) - have become smart at deferring to each other's specialisms: food from one, medical care from another, child-based aid from a third. Look at the appeal for Haiti, says Whitbread. 'The top 13 charities in the UK all pulled that through the DEC, it was allocated in terms of ability to spend it wisely, and we could guarantee that your money went where it was needed most.'

But is that always the case? That's not what the BBC alleged recently in its coverage of the millions spent after Bob Geldof's Live Aid fundraising. Did some of it really go to buying arms for rebel groups in one region?

'It's impossible to say that no money was misused,' says Whitbread, 'but completely laughable to think that over 90% in that area went to buy arms. I mean, that just doesn't work. All those peoples' lives were saved. Hello? How did that happen? We actually saw the feeding programmes. Yes, you have to be careful whenever you spend money in Africa, but that's what the agencies were: very careful. They weren't a bunch of naive people from West Wickham. It's a real shame the headlines misled everybody.'

So what is Save the Children particularly good at? Whitbread hunches in concentration. 'Save the Children's core capability is about inspiring breakthroughs in how the world treats children.'

When I tell her that sounds perilously close to management twaddle, she doesn't blanch. 'OK, it's about using its resources and firepower to make the world treat children better. Put right some of the egregious wrongs that shouldn't happen in the 21st century, and stop children dying from hunger.'

Which a dozen other charities can do, starting with Oxfam, surely? 'Yes and no. Oxfam doesn't focus on children, and it doesn't do emergency feeding programmes.

'What we try to do at Save the Children is focus on a handful of big changes. We're not going to try and make world peace, but we're saying there should be a few basics in place for children. We're not anti-adult, but children should have basic education, enough to eat, they should not die before their fifth birthday and they should be protected from exploitation, whether in Haiti or Niger, or India. We have a contained set of objectives. They are enormous, but do-able.'

Whether the British public, assaulted by charity demands every day, understands that is another matter. Whitbread thinks Save the Children needs to do more explaining, and she is conscious that she is selling her message to a broad church. 'No, I don't think the public does understand, and a big part of what we are trying to do is to get our message across. We didn't put any money into telling people who we were. And it doesn't matter where you come from, what newspaper you read, what religion you are, there are areas we can all agree on: children should not die of hunger, they should be protected from evil and not be exploited.

'Now, we work in places like Zimbabwe and North Korea and are actively supported in those countries. And we can get away with it, and our supporters - be they readers of the Daily Mail or the Guardian - embrace that centre ground, and I am proud of that.'

Others who have worked with Whitbread say such eloquent persuasiveness is typical. She is good at speech-making and great at motivating, but she's also careful. One insider says that Whitbread has changed the team around her at Save the Children, 'but done it nicely'.

Another experienced hand, Lord Joffe, who chaired Oxfam from 1995 to 2001, says Whitbread is pretty much the archetype for the new generation of charity leaders. 'Intelligent, excellent interpersonal skills and an ability to enthuse the people she leads, plus lots of dynamism. She has revitalised Save the Children.'

Whitbread says she gets her determination to make a difference from her father, who is an ardent socialist, despite his management career. 'He didn't go to university, but was plainly very intelligent, self-educated.' Her people skills come from her Swiss mother. 'Consultative, neutral, you know?'

Whitbread was the first in her family to go to university, and was driven on by her grandmother's determination that she make the most of herself. 'My dad's mum was a strong influence. She was ever so pleased I was getting on.'

After reading English at Bristol, her priority was to pay her own way - hence the job at Rio Tinto. Following her stint in marketing and PR, she moved to sales. She also had her eye on overseas charity work, and applied for VSO. 'I always had a strong sense of injustice. My family joined a Save the Children child sponsorship scheme, and I was a member of Amnesty International. I wanted to work in the Third World. But VSO took years to come back.'

By which time she was selling software, based in Boston, Massachusetts. Eventually she and her then boyfriend, now husband, decamped to Uganda on VSO jobs. After finishing there, they travelled the world before returning to Boston. 'My husband wanted to get an MBA, and I thought I'd just work there for a year. Five years later, I was still there. That's when I saw a job for Oxfam advertised in the Economist.'

Her stint at Thomson Financial - which culminated in a Stanford management course - is still of use to her today, she says. 'I can't think of a thing I learnt about being a manager and leader that isn't relevant to what I do here.'

Others in the charity sector were less easily convinced. Whitbread confesses that her first interview at Oxfam was a disaster. The charity was looking for regional directors and ran two-day interview sessions - she was let go after one day. She is still incredulous. 'They just said thanks, but no thanks. I was devastated. It was a job I really wanted, a downward move in terms of people and budget, a massive cut in salary, and I thought, this charity should be grateful.'

Then a few months later, out of the blue, Oxfam contacted her again, and said it had never filled the post. Whitbread's instinct was that she didn't want to be humiliated again, but after a call to an Oxfam director, she interviewed for a second time, and the job was hers.

Within months, she'd moved husband and two offspring to Dakar, Senegal, and was in charge of all Oxfam's development interests in west Africa. 'Nine countries, three years there,' she smiles. She couldn't have done it, she admits, if her husband hadn't thrown in his job to run their home.

'He found our house, he found the nursery school, he got electricity and telephone and got us settled in francophone west Africa - no mean feat, I tell you. I was running Oxfam there from day one, so had no chance to help.'

Once there, she had to make sense of 'a hotchpotch of programmes' and decided quickly that any charity's biggest problem was 'mission creep' - that sense that it can't say no to anything. 'It's human nature, and it's particularly difficult for charities.' She ended up stopping support for some projects so that she could concentrate resources on others. It was hard.

In 2002, she was offered the international director's post, after just three years at Oxfam.

'I would have been happy to stay as a regional director a bit longer,' she says now. But she came back to Oxford to work directly for the charity's chief executive, Barbara Stocking. Three years later, she was off again, to head Save the Children. That, in charity terms, is fast.

There was no falling out with Stocking, shrugs Whitbread. She just couldn't resist the offer from Save the Children. Others at Oxfam say Whitbread and Stocking, a serious organiser who climbed the NHS career ladder, just had different styles. 'Jasmine is very glamorous and I always thought Barbara might have held that against her,' chuckles one former colleague. Some also questioned whether Whitbread had the experience for the Save the Children post.

Now Whitbread and Stocking are very much competitors, though the organisations often work together. Those who know both assert that it's difficult to say yet if Whitbread's Save the Children performs as well as Stocking's Oxfam. There are too many unknowns. The media focuses on income and admin costs; assessing efficiency of spend in the field is another matter.

You might guess all charities have been hit hard by the recession, too. 'I think the jury is still out on that,' says Whitbread. 'What has hit us more than recession is the value of the pound. Other than that, we've seen effects in different places. I thought when I joined Save the Children, the fundraising was a bit diversified and maybe we should consolidate it, but I'm glad we didn't, as it cushions you a bit.

'On the corporate side, income has been affected, but relationships have become stronger. Trusts and foundations are not so badly hit; that will come later. Governments have not been hit yet; they take ages to turn off the taps. The big question is individuals. We have 200,000 who give us £7 a month - they are our lifeblood. So far, we have kept the majority of those, but if some lapse, can we attract new supporters? That's what I'm nervous about in 2010.'

Has the downturn given Save the Children better pull in the job market? 'We have many more conversations,' says Whitbread, 'A lot of people think it would be nice to do, then ...'

The lack of real coffee puts them off? She laughs and pulls a face.

She is keener to shake up the fundraising side, where she says Save the Children can learn a lot from arts institutions such as the Tate. Her charity already has strong bonds with companies like Reckitt Benckiser and First Group, but she wants more, and she wants the rich. 'Look at the Tate. They are all high-income individuals -and a tiny bit of mass market. We are all mass market - and a tiny bit of high income.' So she's touting for billionaires? 'We will be careful where we take our money, but I really do enjoy enabling people to engage with our programme.'

No surprise, then, that Save the Children's current chairman of trustees is Alan Parker, boss of Brunswick PR. Whitbread also lets slip that she is being mentored by Lord Davies, the minister for trade, investment and small business. In short, she's connected.

Anyway, we've run out of time, MT's photographer is waiting and I haven't even asked about her home life. She lives in Dorchester-on-Thames, south of Oxford, and her husband, a management consultant, still pulls his weight in full, she says.

What does she do to relax? 'I am a serial weird hobby person,' she grins. 'Used to ride, sang for a while, now I row. I like doing new things.'

Does that restlessness mean she might go back to the corporate sector one day? 'Wouldn't rule it out, but having found out what I can achieve combining my business training with a passion to make a difference, I think I am able to perform at a higher level.'

Another acquaintance predicts that she will go into one of the global development agencies. Or maybe politics. 'I am very open-minded,' she says. Later, as MT goes to press, she e-mails me to say moves are afoot to give her a more global role at Save the Children, details to be confirmed. She's on the up.


THREE CHALLENGES FACING WHITBREAD

1. To find corporate partners to support the charity's work
2. To keep children high on the political agenda after the election
3. To hang on to Save the Children's supporters through the recession and maintain core income


WHITBREAD IN A MINUTE
1963: Born Twickenham, 1 September, educated University of Bristol and
Stanford University
1986: Marketing manager, Rio Tinto Zinc
1988: Director of global marketing, Cortex Corporation
1990: Management trainer, VSO posting to National Union of Disabled
Persons of Uganda
1994: Managing director, Thomson Financial
1999: Regional director, West Africa, Oxfam
2002: International director, Oxfam
2005: Chief executive, Save the Children UK
2010: Charity's first international chief exec

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