business, consumer experience, general communication

Cardiff Business Club – MacMillan Cancer Support boss Lynda Thomas


On the eve of International Women’s Day 2016, a talk was given by MacMillan Cancer Support chief executive Lynda Thomas at the Principality Stadium for Cardiff Business Club.

A few days before I’d seen the talk advertised online. My wife is the PR Manager for a charity, so I thought she’d be interested and it would make a cheap evening out.

Lynda Thomas is originally from these parts of South Wales, and she proudly wears her Welshness. It was astute to express this at Cardiff Business Club right from the start, especially during the week of an England-Wales rugby match. Inside the iconic, recently renamed stadium, the crowd was with her immediately.

Following her degree at Warwick University, Thomas worked for Action for Children and the NSPCC in media roles, before children happened. She then initially volunteered for MacMillan Cancer Support. This led to a successful job share arrangement, which led to Director of Fundraising, which led to her current role as Chief Executive.  She attributes her career path and impressive fundraising achievements to a “lot of luck, and a bit of courage.”

Coming close on the heels of the last public lecture I attended, it was difficult not to compare the two. Whereas the 2016 Turing Lecture from Robert Schukai concentrated on an industry and evolving technologies, and was arguably wanting for a little more intimacy and personality, this was quite the reverse.

[Read the Composed blog – 2016 Turing Lecture]

It didn’t share much with the Turing Lecture except that both speakers support Arsenal, the now highly fashionable North London football team.  (As a fan of their rivals Tottenham, I tried not to let this bias my views).

Personality with purpose

Thomas invited the audience into her world and life with a style of warmth and vivacity you could appreciate would inspire staff. MacMillan is not a 9-5 job, she said, but a way of life. Fundraising is hard and comes with a lot of rejection, she told us.  But it can also be exhilarating because you are not raising funds for shareholders. That alone puts fire in the belly.

Her talk was full of personal vignettes. Not tangents, but well planned stories used to illustrate points. It was also carefully seeded with common charity messages my wife knows well: not being government funded, the people and the volunteers being what matters, those individual emotive stories.

This was a broad business audience being addressed, many of whom were successful and wealthy. Although as Thomas pointed out, wealth is no indicator of generosity.

It came as no surprise that she was a runner, and had raised considerable funds for her London Marathon effort. However, her own family’s need of MacMillan nurses (Julie and Carol) came with a powerful impact when her sister and mother were diagnosed with cancer in two successive days. Both were able to fight it off.

At this point I had a flashback to the disproportionately cramped pharmacy of the biggest hospital in Wales, in north Cardiff a month earlier.  I killed waiting time by browsing through MacMillan literature on a bookshelf, wondering and worrying. Leaflets spoke of safeguards for self-employed people like me, what happens if you get cancer, what earnings protection you could have. I skimmed it, worried a bit, put it down and tried to forget about it. But it can affect everyone.

Cancer services in Wales

Wales needs greater investment in cancer services, according to Thomas. The 350 nurses we have here are not enough and more collaboration is needed with general practitioners. MacMillan’s most successful campaign in Wales was in Merthyr, not a wealthy area, where £3 million was raised for a new building.

Other political issues of MacMillan include free prescriptions and overpriced hospital parking, while the question and answer session highlighted her wish for all political parties to prioritise healthcare and social care.

Virtue in being closely involved

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” said Thomas, quoting somebody I failed to make a note of. Her philosophy and manner appears to support the view. In conclusion she offered us three conversations she had, that she wasn’t originally sure she wanted to have.

One was with a 19 year-old male MacMillan volunteer, (most are female), who lost his mother to cancer the previous year. One was with a team of MacMillan fundraising cyclists while she was on a personal break in Paris. One was with the Muslim family of a lung cancer patient who died at the age of 24. Each left her glowing with pride afterwards, in different ways.

Thomas said little about the regular day-job, the marketing, brand management, practical business and HR issues, fundraising strategy, possibly things that would be boring to a casual listener. But we were left in no doubt about what MacMillan means to her. She was compelling, compassionate and demonstrably smart in quickly identifying the charity allegiance of an audience member who asked a question from the floor.

The Third Sector is a tough one to work in. It can be exhaustingly political, in both broad and narrow senses, but the wins and bonuses can matter profoundly, much more than money. It needs more committed and passionate people like Lynda Thomas, and my wife.