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“We have a mini charter that we've created together, so we’re all on the same page”

Alex Marshall, Director of Campaigns and Engagement at Women in Sport — which works to empower women and girls through sport — tells MissionBox about the benefits of learning on the job, challenging deeply ingrained attitudes and managing a wide range of tasks.

How did you get into charity communications?

It was more by accident than design! I came out of university not knowing what I wanted to do so I signed up for an internship at a youth charity, where I was involved in everything from admin to marketing. It gave me a good grounding.

Then I got a job at a music charity, and when the CEO spotted that I had a natural flair for comms she made me communications manager. The charity was going through a big reshuffle and I was looking after its corporate relations and events marketing, so it was a meaty role with lots of learning on the job. For about a year I had a fantastic mentor who had 30 years of experience and who challenged my thinking, put me in touch with new contacts and helped me build up my networks. When you’re 25 you don't think about how important those things are, but I later realised how lucky I was to get that right at the beginning.

My current role at Women in Sport was advertised as maternity cover and it ticked so many boxes, including the fact I’d get to work on gender equality and sport, two of my passions. I’d worked in the comms team for the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and the media team for the European Aquatics Championships at the Olympic Park in London in 2016 and I decided that after 10 years in the culture sector at places like City of London Sinfonia, Spitalfields Music and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, it was time to try something different.

How have you developed your skills, and have you done any training you’d recommend?

I've developed fundraising skills because I've always worked for small organisations where often communications and fundraising teams overlap. I picked up tasks informally to begin with, things like setting up individual giving schemes, and I enjoyed it and wanted to do more, so I began to seek out roles that involved fundraising as well as comms. I’ve also done volunteering that’s helped me get more experience outside of my paid roles. I do some mentoring with the Small Charities Coalition, and one of the projects I’ve worked on was for a small international charity, who I helped set up a crowdfunding campaign.

I'm a strong believer in learning as you go along, but one thing I did do at the beginning of my senior management career was the Clore Leadership Programme — an intensive residential course for the culture sector. You're with 25 strangers and it was brilliant because it helped me create a network of peers I could use as sounding boards and for support. There’s a Clore Social Leadership Programme for leaders from the social sector too.

What does your current role as director of campaigns and engagement involve?

I'm responsible for the charity's campaigning work, corporate communications and fundraising, so­ the brief is pretty massive. There isn't a typical day or week ­— one minute I can be dealing with media requests and finding spokespeople and the next I’ll be working on strategy planning and engagement.

Each year we have at least one major campaign running — our current flagship campaign, Beyond 30%, aims to get more women into decision-making roles in sport. I might spend a day reading research from the insight team and brainstorming ideas, or working on event planning and management for campaign launches, media launches or cultivation events for stakeholders and potential donors, where we showcase our work. My team also manages the charity’s social media accounts and looks after publications.

For fundraising, we’ll write applications to trusts and foundations, including high-level funders such as Comic Relief, and speak to people at Sport England and governing bodies. We also work on individual giving, such as organising challenge events and cultivating relationships with major donors.

I’m part of the senior management team too, and we meet twice a month to go through accounts, check in with our fundraising targets and make any adjustments — it gives us the space to think longer term.

Tell us about the team you manage: have you got any tips on how to make things work?

There are six people in my team including me, and we have a short, sharp huddle for 15 minutes at the start of each morning. Communications moves at such speed — there are often media requests coming in last minute and the huddle allows us to make decisions quickly. Then everyone knows what's going on and people can sort out their workload for the rest of the day. We also make sure we have fortnightly team meetings to focus on planning for the future.

Another useful tool is our team ‘wows’: ways of working. It’s like a mini charter that we've created together, which sets out how we like to work and communicate with each other. For example, one day a week we'll sit on the same table in the office so we can speak to each other more easily, and we’ve decided to use Skype Instant Messenger rather than sending lots of emails. It means we’re all on the same page, and we review things every six months to see if we need to tweak anything.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Women in Sport is a small team (16 staff in total) with big ambitions. We've got finite resources, in terms of both staff count and budget, so we have to prioritise and plan as well as we can. At the same time, we’ve got to have the flex to react to opportunities that come in.

When it comes to campaigns and communications, one of our big challenges is changing people’s deeply ingrained attitudes about women’s and girls’ rights to take part and work in sport. We have to deal with a fair amount of backlash on social media and if we launch a challenging piece of research or a controversial campaign that’s something we need to prepare for.

Where do you see your career taking you?

Any job I take on in future I’ll have to be passionate about, like my current role. All the organisations I've worked for are trying to effect positive change in people’s lives and that's what really motivates me to get out of bed. For me, it's about the mission, purpose and cause aligning with my own personal views and values.

Photo credit: Women in Sport

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