One morning last summer, when Mark Goldring's wife, Rachel, was away on business and he was preparing a presentation for that day's Labour Party Conference, he noticed that their seven-year-old daughter, Tashi, looked poorly. 'She was definitely sick,' he recalls. 'But I dropped her at school.' He then hurriedly called their childminder and friends in case she had to be sent home.
Reluctant though he was to send a sick child to school, Goldring felt he didn't have a choice because that day's presentation was so important for Voluntary Service Overseas, the charity he runs. With a turnover of pounds 30 million, VSO is one of Britain's Top 100 charities and, as its chief executive, 42-year-old Goldring is in charge of 200 employees in London and 2,000 volunteers who provide badly needed services such as teaching, running engineering or technology programmes, and overseeing agricultural projects in 50 developing countries.
Goldring has to balance the demands of running VSO with the responsibility of bringing up two young children - Tashi has a four-year-old brother, Rory - with his wife, Rachel Carnegie, who has a demanding career of her own, also in international development. 'Everything works fairly well, most of the time,' he says. 'But there's no flexibility if something goes wrong - like a child being sick when one of us is travelling.'
Although Goldring spends up to three months a year abroad, his schedule is more predictable than it was earlier in his career. He went into development after graduating in law from Oxford University and spent two years teaching at Sarawak, in East Malaysia - 'a beautiful place in the middle of jungle'. On his return to Britain, Goldring worked as a legal researcher for BP for nine months, before rejoining VSO, this time as an employee, first in Barbados and then Bhutan, where he set up its operation. 'When I arrived, my office was literally a suitcase in a hotel room,' he remembers. 'There was no proper phone system there then, no fax or e-mail. I had to communicate by telex.'
When the first volunteers were due to arrive, Goldring waited for three days at the airport 'for this tiny plane to come out of the clouds'. Rachel was among them. They stayed in Bhutan for three years, before returning to London, where Mark did an MA in development planning and Rachel worked for a health education charity. He then went to Bangladesh to run the United Nations' development programme - 'I hated it. The combination of UN bureaucracy and the Bangladesh infrastructure brought out the worst in everything' - so he got a new job there with Oxfam, while Rachel worked for UNICEF.
'Everyone we knew in Bangladesh was in development, and we all worked hard,' he says. 'At times of disasters, we'd work round the clock. The worst was a cyclone in 1991, which killed 150,000 people.' After Tashi's birth, Rachel took her to the UNICEF creche each day. They then moved to Fiji, where Rory was born, and Mark ran the British government's South Pacific development programme until he was appointed overseas director of VSO, based in London.
During their years abroad, what little free time the Goldrings had was spent travelling around the region. Back in London, they enjoy occasional outings to the cinema and theatre, although Mark says he doesn't 'miss that sort of thing if it's not available, which it obviously wasn't in Bhutan or Bangladesh'. However, he has always found time for sport. 'I travelled all over East Malaysia playing rugby,' he recalls. 'In Bhutan, there was walking, of course, and cricket. The only way I could get visas to go into India was with the embassy team.' Goldring now cycles the 30-minute journey from his home in Ham, near Richmond, to VSO's Putney headquarters, and goes on family walking and cycling holidays. He also plays squash, but settles for watching rugby and cricket. He and Rachel, who now works from home as a UNICEF consultant, go out one night a week - 'mostly for dinner with friends' - and Mark generally has one evening function for VSO. Often they go away with the children at weekends to stay with friends or family in Britain.
Since becoming VSO's chief executive last summer, Goldring has been busy launching new initiatives - notably Business Partnerships, whereby Shell, HP Foods and Andersen Consulting will second staff to VSO as volunteers - but his working routine is fairly stable. 'As overseas director, you can get consumed by day-to-day problems, but I've got a terrific team to do that now, and have more time for long-term planning,' he says. Goldring arrives in the office just after 9am and leaves at 6pm, or 6.30pm at the latest. To make the most of his time, he keeps business lunches to a minimum and tries to avoid working at home. 'Sometimes I'll work on a paper for an hour after dinner. But when we go away for weekends, it's usually Rachel who takes a laptop, not me.'
The main complication is that both he and Rachel travel fairly frequently.
They try to take business trips to the same country with the children once a year, and to make sure they are not both away at the same time.
'If both our employers need us to travel in the same week, one tries to go a few days early and the other a few days later,' he says. 'Once we handed over the children at Clapham Junction station (one of them had flown in from Heathrow and the other was about to depart from Gatwick). That isn't ideal, but it's better than neither of us being there.'
When Rachel is away, their childminder works four rather than three days a week, and on the fifth day the children go to friends' houses after school. Goldring tries to leave half an hour early, avoiding evening appointments, to pick them up. 'It's Rachel who bears the brunt of our domestic responsibilities as she works from home, and she's made the career sacrifices since we've had children,' he admits. 'Eventually, we'd like to go abroad again and we've made a deal that it'll be Rachel's choice next time. I'm not sure what I'll do. Probably go back into the field, where you operate independently of the hierarchy and are left to get on with it. That's what I see myself doing in 10 years' time.'
WORK : LIFE DRAMA
7.15am 'Wake up. Get kids ready for school.'
8.30am 'Set off on my bicycle with one child on the front, the other on the back, and drop them off at school five minutes later. I cycle on to work.'
9am Arrives at VSO offices. Meetings with senior staff.
12.30pm Informal chats with colleagues.
1.30pm Lunch at desk. 'A sandwich, made at home.'
1.40pm 'Phone calls and e-mails, dictate letters to PA.'
2.30pm Outside meeting with opposite number at British Executive Services Overseas.
4pm More meetings with senior staff. More phone calls and e-mails to civil servants or VSO trustees.
6pm Leaves office to cycle home. 'Once a week I'll have an evening appointment. Otherwise, I go straight home.'
6.30pm Arrives home. 'Often I'm starving after cycling and have to eat immediately. Mostly Rachel and I wait until the kids have gone to bed.'
9pm 'I try to avoid taking work home, but if I've got a paper to write, I work on it for an hour in the evening.'