The MT Interview: Mike Aaronson

The head of the Save The Children fund combines long experience of fieldwork - and a spell in the Foreign Office - with a natural grasp of strategy. He's calling on all his skills to make sure the charity is effective in a post-tsunami world where rival organisations confuse the picture.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Mike Aaronson is a man who is used to thinking his way round problems quickly. 'Shall I start in the middle?' he says, when I ask him how he came to join Save The Children.

No, the beginning is fine.

'But the significant bit comes in the middle.'

Hey, who's running this interview anyway? Aaronson laughs, his beaky face cracked across in a broad smile. Since stepping up to head Save The Children 10 years ago, he's become used to getting to places by any short-cut available. War, famine, natural disasters, HIV/Aids - the charity takes each in its stride in an increasingly complicated, competitive and dangerous world.

The day before, he'd just flown in from Sri Lanka, inspecting projects set up by Save The Children to salve the effects of the Asian tsunami.

The response from the rest of the world to the crisis has, he agrees, been fantastic, but he is not one to linger on eulogies. 'Now what we have to do is translate that into on-going support for less visible crises,' he says.

And that's his job - it never stops. Aaronson, 57, onetime Foreign Office trainee and former charity field worker, sits at the centre of Save The Children, pulling in the funds while co-ordinating a workforce of more than 3,200 spread across more than 60 countries.

To some, he is one of the most respected and experienced NGO (non-government organisation) bosses around, a master of persuasion and consensus management.

To others, he's an unknown. Indeed, many think Save The Children is run by its patron, Princess Anne, not him.

What's indisputable is that the organisation has long been one of Britain's best-known charities, a widely stretched outfit that has a reputation (probably out of date) for its posh connections and its dedicated workforce, part paid, part volunteer, all of whom feel passionately committed to what they do. This month, the charity embarks on its annual fundraising push, Save The Children Week (24-30 April).

Last year, the money raised by such events, and donations made by governments, agencies, companies and individuals, enabled it to spend more than £132 million on projects in the UK, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Aaronson gets paid £91,000 as director general to organise it all - big bucks in UK charity terms, small bucks in senior management terms.

'I think I get paid quite a lot, actually,' he smiles. 'This is not an underpaid job.'

But it is more complex than many corporate jobs that pay far more. 'People from the corporate sector who have worked with us have said that, though the head of a charity does not come under the ludicrous pressure that many FTSE CEOs endure. I don't have to go to the City every quarter and justify my results, for instance. I thrive in an environment that is more sympathetic and understanding.'

Aaronson talks quickly, logically, with the confidence of a speaker practised at arguing his corner. Short, chunky, crew-cut, sitting in shirtsleeves by the full-height window running along the length of his new office in Farringdon, central London, he could be a slightly grizzled lawyer or off-duty surgeon. But the gentle tinge of scruffiness tells another story - the flow of papers across his desk, the rather kitsch rug commemorating Princess Anne on the floor.

Ah, the real boss? Aaronson laughs when I put it to him. Princess Anne, he points out, has contributed more than 30 years of commitment to the charity as its main patron, giving it clout and status. 'Actually, I think my low profile has happened more by default than design,' he says. 'But look, I am giving this interview!'

Yet Save The Children is a curious charity to many, with a high-society image in the shires but a rather more radical outlook in the areas where it operates. Schizophrenic - or opportunistic?

'Being head of Save The Children is a series of balancing acts,' agrees Aaronson, before arguing that the charity's upmarket connections are a hangover from decades ago. 'Have a look around' - he gestures at the open-plan office outside his sanctum. 'You will see that the profile of our workforce is very different. And the volunteers who raise money are brilliant as fund-raisers, but they are not as involved in the running of the organisation as they have been.'

The space outside, two floors of a smart new glass-and-steel office rented off Standard Life, is packed with a youngish, multi-racial workforce.

From a 2004 staff total of 3,204, the organisation's accounts ascribe 45 to management and administration and 180 to 'cost of generating funds'.

Getting them into new premises was always one of Aaronson's long-term aims.

'Breaking down the silos and getting people to see the bigger picture is one of the most difficult things about this job,' he says. 'Before, we were on two different sites, one in Camberwell and another in Vauxhall, and it was hugely disadvantageous. Now, we have got everyone together and it is fantastic; they can all talk to each other. It's made a huge difference.'

Other changes overseen by Aaronson include a more thought-out approach to where and how it operates in the field, and a streamlining of the lines between volunteer fundraisers, regional managers and head office.

The changes are not universally popular. At least one branch chairman that I spoke to said the big corporate feel that the organisation was taking on made it far less human and enjoyable to work with. It was too dependent on the quality of the regional managers, who had been given bigger areas to oversee, leading some volunteers to bypass them and talk direct to head office. Another closer to the top says that decisions could be made quicker if Aaronson didn't agonise so much over whether the right choices were made.

Aaronson says that the systems will take time to bed down. The charity is prepared to take 'tough decisions' about managers, removing the bad ones. Volunteers must be properly supported and valued. 'It is a critical part of our identity that we are a voluntary organisation, we have to nurture that and I am sympathetic to people who say we are losing our humanity. There has been a lot of change and it's a challenge to deal with it.'

And Save The Children is used to challenge. Set up in 1919 by two sisters, Eglantine Jebb and Dorothy Buxton, to protest about the deliberate starvation of Germany and Austria after the First World War, it has often found itself provoking strong reactions. Jebb herself was tried for 'supporting the King's enemy' and fined £10 (which the judge, so the story goes, refunded by giving her a £10 donation). By 1923 Jebb and Buxton's aims had broadened.

Jebb launched the world's first charter on children's rights, promoting the principle that children were entitled to a good quality of life, and that governments, families and other adults were obliged to provide this.

In 1989 the charter formed the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But a lot has changed since 1919, not least in international aid and diplomacy. Does the world still need a child-specific charity? 'That's a very good question,' nods Aaronson. 'There is a need for an organisation with particular children's focus because children are half the world's population, and most of the world's poor are children. That's not because the parents are careless or unthinking, but because larger families are an economic necessity, as they see it.'

Nor does it mean that children are just the problem that needs to be fixed. 'We see them as a significant part of the solution, or to put it in techie language: they are social and economic actors in their own right.

Hence if you just take child labour, and understand why it is they have to work, working nine hours a day may be contributing a quarter of their family's income. Ask yourself: what is a really bad thing about that?

Yes, it's probably harmful and exploitative labour, so you would want to stop it for that, but it's also about the child not getting an education.

'So what we do is try to see things from the children's perspective in such a way that recognises children's role in family and community and society, and harnesses the energy they have.'

There are no simple answers from Aaronson, yet in the next moment he can be unexpectedly blunt, bemoaning the excess of charities competing for the same pound. Children In Need, Red Nose Day, Warchild, Save The Children, and those are just the child-centred ones ... 'There has been a lot of fragmentation in recent years. Charities start around single issues simply because someone wants to set one up.' He cites Warchild, the music industry's children's charity, as one that does much the same work as Save The Children.

Should there be more mergers of charities? Possibly, he nods. 'If two plus two came to more than four, we'd certainly be interested.'

It's not just the competition for attention that's changed. Experienced staff now get snaffled up by rival agencies. 'We've got excellent people, but the bar is being raised all the time. We don't offer huge salaries and we are increasingly competing with organisations like DFID and Unicef.

It's more stellar, and some people are attracted to driving around in cars with flags on them. I left that behind 17 years ago.'

Ouch. Aaronson has a sharp side that balances his earnest charm - both qualities that must have stood him in good stead working his way up the Foreign Office. He was there for 16 years, doing stints at the British embassies in Paris and Lagos. But joined only because his first job after graduating from Oxford, working in Biafra for Save The Children, led to nothing. 'There was no career here in those days. There was nothing to come back to, so I thought it was time to go straight.' Two decades later, when the post of overseas director came up, he jumped back in.

Others describe him as an accomplished organiser and manager. 'Mike's got a sharp intellect, but he's careful with relationships,' says Save The Children's chairman of trustees Nick McAndrew. 'Also, because Mike has been around the organisation for so long, he has got huge experience of the sort of problems an NGO faces. And he likes to carry people with him. Many of those who work here would not be comfortable with a more confrontational environment.'

Aaronson says he gets his organisational skills from his father, Jack, a former GEC manager who became a company doctor, and his people skills from his mother, Marian, who wrote books on flower-arranging. Aaronson has a younger brother, an economist and competition expert, who has already retired and retrained as a counsellor. Achievement, you sense, is high on the Aaronson family checklist, mixed with a quixotic desire to follow their own paths and to do good.

'My grandparents came from Palestine,' explains Aaronson, 'but my father abandoned the Jewish faith and married a Gentile. That was a big deal in family terms. And in the companies he took on as a businessman, he always had a strong sense of public service ... Dad looked at it in terms of peoples' livelihoods.'

Aaronson was head boy at Merchant Taylors public school, and won a scholarship to Oxford to read modern languages, but he never had a career aim. 'I still don't now, actually,' he laughs. 'It's the story of my life: one day I will find out!'

While at university he switched to reading psychology, because he was interested in people, and was pushed towards charity work by his college chaplain, who had contacts at Save The Children. 'He thought I was a good chap, well motivated, who wanted to save the world,' says Aaronson. 'So I was sent to Lagos in 1969 to help with the relief programme for the Biafran War.'

And he was hooked. 'There was no formal organisation or career structure. But Save the Children spent its money well, it ran mass feedings, it built hospitals, it distributed seeds, it was very operational. I was travelling around teams, keeping them going.'

He pulled out of a Masters course in industrial relations that he had signed on for at Warwick university and stayed in Nigeria. 'That was the thing that changed my life. That was what I wanted to do.' But by 1972 he was looking for that 'straight' job - hence the move to the Foreign Office. He spent four years in Paris, which he 'loved every minute of', then four years in London. In 1981 he was sent back to Lagos.

'And that's where I got my come-uppance. I started realising that although I loved my colleagues, there was such a contrast between being a diplomat and actually helping people.'

Later he served in Rangoon, but in 1988, tipped off by an old friend that the job of overseas director at Save The Children would soon be advertised, he returned to the aid sector.

Aaronson's first aim on rejoining Save The Children was to rationalise operations. 'Traditionally, where we had gone had been more art than science; it was a mixture of opportunity and rational assessment, or we just went somewhere we had a contact. What I tried to do as overseas director was introduce a programmed approach, and try and see the collection of work as a whole rather than distinct sets of items, and making sure the whole was greater than the parts.

'There were two main things: one was breaking down the stovepipes and getting the organisation to function as a collective entity rather than as individual departments, so you can see the bigger picture. My predecessor had spotted that and struggled with it, and I have too. But I think I have cracked it. The second is to take the entrepreneurial skills of the people out there in the field, their ability to come up with imaginatively flexible responses to crises, and bring that into the way the organisation as a whole is run. Managing the interface between that and the internal is the biggest challenge.'

Because there was a natural conflict between the fundraising bureaucracy and the workers in the field? Not so much that, he says, as the fact that Save The Children has traditionally been a very bottom-up organisation.

'We are informed by what's on the ground; we don't take positions unless we have grassroots experience of that position. Yet we have got to be able to set a course, to take the boat over the horizon and say: this is where we are going.'

That involves taking tough decisions about where it doesn't go. Sir David Green, chairman of the British Council and former deputy director general of the charity, says Aaronson has made it a much more thoughtful organisation in that way. 'Mike's been much more clear about the balance between advocacy and project work. Sometimes you make much more impact through advocacy.'

Aaronson is complimentary about the UK government's record on international development since 1997, but concerned about NGOs' loss of independence and neutrality. 'Ever since the first Gulf War in 1991, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush and Blair administrations have felt they can co-opt the humanitarian organisations under their coalitions. But it just doesn't work for the humanitarian agencies. If you forfeit your perceived independence you cannot do your job.'

Hence the stance on the Iraq war. 'We took the same position as Eglantine Jebb took at the beginning: "Every war, just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, is a war against the child". We are not a pacifist organisation; we are allowing for the possibility of a just war, but it is not our job to say whether or not it should take place.'

And if politics is more complicated, so too is the corporate world. The increasing importance of corporate social responsibility gives Save The Children a ready audience. 'When companies are interested in social as well as economic issues, there is tremendous scope for partnership,' says Aaronson. 'But sometimes relations can still be quite adversarial, especially if we think a company is cynically displaying bad practice.

Such as? 'Well, the marketing of breastmilk substitutes is one obvious example. There is a global code of practice that is almost observed in the breach by some companies. Illiterate mothers are encouraged to use a product that is not as good as the original and, when mixed with dirty water, can kill a child.

'The other obvious one is when a company is building a pipeline, say, and colluding with a government to chase indigenous people off their land, probably unwittingly.'

Whoever can he be thinking of? He smiles. 'I am not going to give you the obvious answers. But if they are not listening to people who can help them not to make those mistakes, then we would feel obliged to speak out.

But on the other hand, there are many companies that take their community and social responsibilities seriously, and they look to an organisation like ours to help them. Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn't set up a separate consultancy business of our own.'

And not just to work on buffing corporate image. Aaronson attended a month-long leadership course at London School for Business last year and he noted that although there were relevant skills that NGOs could learn from the corporate world - niche marketing, building competitive advantage - there were also things that charities could teach big business. 'I think we are definitely ahead on the soft issues - people, leadership, transformation,' he says.

Does he think he will be hanging around to put it into practice for much longer? Ten years at the top is quite a stint. He laughs. 'How long did Jack Welch do? Look, I know you can't go on for ever and there will come a time when I'll let someone else have a go, but in the last couple of years I've put a lot of effort into reconfiguring the management team, getting a structure in place that helps break down some of those silos.'

And how does he unwind? He puffs out his cheeks. 'It has to be physical for me: swimming, cycling, leaping about in the garden.' He lives outside Guildford with his wife and children and says the only bit of his worklife that grinds him down is the commute into London. But he is absolutely where he wants to be. 'I found my world in Nigeria in 1969. That was the world I wanted to make connections with. I got my real kicks being in a country like that and seeing the energy and tolerance and good humour of the poor people making a go of their lives and particularly the children making a go of their lives. I wanted to stay a part of that world, and I have.'


1. To nurture the charity's fundraising volunteers and maintain the humanity of an organisation so that it supports their work and loyalty, while also making systems more efficient.

2. To differentiate the charity and prevail in an ever more crowded marketplace against organisations with very similar aims.

3. To protect its field workers in a world where it is increasingly difficult to claim independence and neutrality.


1947 Born 8 September in London. Educated Merchant Taylors' School,

Northwood, and St John's College, Oxford.

1969 Appointed field co-ordinator, Nigeria, Save The Children

1972 Joined the Foreign Office, rising to first secretary, HM Embassy,


1981 Posted to British High Commission, Lagos, Nigeria

1987 Posted to HM Embassy, Rangoon

1988 Overseas director, Save The Children

1995 Director general, Save The Children

2000 Awarded CBE.

- Aaronson is also a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, chairman of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Geneva, and visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.

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