When recruiting for senior leadership positions, attracting people with diverse backgrounds and experiences is key. This often means looking outside the charity sector to engage candidates from commercial backgrounds.

The switch to impact over profit may seem incongruent, but these candidates often bring invaluable skills and perspectives.

Clear Voice is an award-winning social enterprise, operating at the intersection of technology, enterprise and social value. Clear Voice is the trading subsidiary of the national charity Migrant Help, with 100% of its profits supporting work with the victims of displacement and exploitation.

In 2023, Clear Voice sought a leader with a strong commercial track record of scale and growth, who was also aligned to their social mission.

Philippa Fabry recently met with David Woodley, Chief Executive at Clear Voice, to gain some more insights about this switch.

David bought extensive experience in organisational growth for the digital, data and technology sectors, while volunteering at two local charities, teaching English to Iranian refugees. This commercial know-how and work with people directly affected by displacement and exploitation offered a strong marriage of skills and purpose alignment.

Tell us about your career in the commercial sector.

I have been fortunate to have a varied career working in a number of commercial sector roles.  After a short tenure in investment banking, I joined a boutique strategy consulting company and spent a considerable period consulting on projects in Eastern and Western Europe.

From here I joined Vodafone’s nascent global business, where I was responsible for generating and reporting on global synergies after a period of rapid inorganic growth. I spent almost 14 years at Vodafone, progressing through several global commercial and marketing roles before heading up Vodafone’s global marketing business for non-controlled operators.

From Telecoms I joined the media sector, leading Time Out’s global business through a period of digital transformation and considerable footprint expansion culminating in an IPO.

Subsequently, I consulted for a number of private equity and VC companies involved in scaling up digital and media businesses.

Why did you decide to consider the social enterprise/charity sector?

I was driven to adopt a more responsible approach to leadership, where success is measured not only in profits but also in making a positive difference in people’s lives. I was already involved in local community projects but wanted to make a bigger difference on a day-to-day basis.

I was seeking a role in which I could leverage my professional skills and experience to drive purpose beyond purely generating shareholder profits; a role that ideally built a legacy and a sustainable system of some sort. My ambition was to find an opportunity to continue to develop both personally and professionally and to use my professional expertise to create a real impact that would improve the lives of people.

I was fortunate to secure an opportunity at the intersection of technology, enterprise and social value.

How have your commercial skills been of value in the social enterprise/charity sector?

In my case, it is my breadth of professional experience, acquired in small, private and listed businesses which has probably provided the greatest source of value. That external perspective has been invaluable in ensuring informed decision-making and selectively challenging the status quo.

The ability to communicate and engage effectively across a range of stakeholders, simplifying complex issues to ensure broad engagement and to keep pace and harness innovative initiatives, for example adopting AI and considering how we can best meet customer needs. Functional expertise and real-world insights acquired from a number of marketing, technology and product roles have been invaluable in identifying and delivering growth opportunities relevant to the social enterprise sector.

Commercial practices, insights and financial rigour have also added considerable value to date, particularly in support of strategy development and investment business cases.

What adaptations have you had to make?

I have had to consider how my transferable skills can bring quantifiable impact to the sector from both a commercial and social value perspective. The organisation is staffed by talented people from the social and charity sectors with immense experience, background, and knowledge. Some of the skillsets and capabilities the team possesses are very sector-specific and the passion and focus that are such an attribute to stakeholders, as in any organisation, can also inhibit new thinking, innovation and adaptability.

Empathy and a willingness to understand how best to bridge this gap and create synergies are the key to a successful transition. While I am used to a flatter, more agile commercial organisation structure, working at a considerable pace and tight objectives, I have had to adapt my approach specifically when addressing change initiatives and introducing more commercial practices and ways of thinking. A willingness to learn, explore new ideas and keep an open mind has been the key to success for all parties.

What’s been the biggest learning for you?

It’s been a big move away from the practices and parameters I was used to while working in the commercial world, and considering the scale of social impact the organisation has was perhaps the biggest learning.

In addition, I have personally also learned much from a governance and risk assurance perspective.  In summary, there is tremendous scope to make a real impact when approached with the right attitude and adopting a ‘best of breed’ approach.

“A willingness to learn, explore new ideas and keep an open mind has been the key to success for all parties.”

What advice would you give to someone else looking to explore opportunities in the charity sector who may have a similar background to your own?

I think I would advise someone to be both courageous and curious in equal measure.

While undoubtedly you have insights and professional skills that add value to the sector, there is also tremendous opportunity to learn both professionally and personally. Be prepared to adapt and balance your expectations and the opportunity to add tangible outcomes in the context of stakeholder and sector values and experience.

Philippa Fabry is the Director of our Not for Profit Practice. She has been recruiting transformational leaders to third sector organisations for over 17 years, which has focused on arts and culture, social justice, start up, social enterprises and social care. To learn more about how we can help you make the swap from the commercial sector to focus on purpose-driven work, you can email Philippa or connect with her on Linkedin.