Interview: Beatson’s charity chief David Welch

TALKING to David Welch, it soon becomes clear that some of the biggest marketing advantages in running a charity are also, ironically, among the heaviest burdens of the job.

David Welch worked in sales and retail management before moving in to roles with several charities. Picture: John Devlin

Now just past its first birthday, the Beatson Cancer Charity smashed through its fundraising target for its first year in operation. Formed through the merger of the Friends of Beatson and the Beatson Oncology Centre Fund, the combined operation was aiming to raise £1.25 million, but brought in nearly three times that amount at £3.6m.

The first new major event organised by the enlarged charity, Off the Beatson Track, aimed to attract 500 sponsored walkers. On the last Saturday in August, 1,500 people showed up, raising a total of more than £140,000.

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The first-year figures were also boosted by a number of large individual donations, which represent a handsome return on investment for the charity – while money must be paid up front to organise an event, it costs very little to receive a legacy gift.

However, Welch says he draws no distinction between the largest and smallest donations.

“There have been some highlights this past year, but I really think the response has been across the board,” he says. “Whether it is £1 or £1,000, you need them both, and you can’t have one without the other.”

With so many people affected directly and indirectly by cancer, there is a natural pool of empathy that the charity draws upon. Survivors, relatives and friends of cancer patients instinctively respond to calls for support, and will converge around the cause in solidarity.

The flip side of this coin is the burden of responsibility that people like Welch, as chief executive of the Beatson Cancer Charity, bear on behalf of the people his organisation serves.

“I often say that I think it is more challenging to run a charity than a private company, because there is such a sense of responsibility and duty of care to the people we are helping,” he says. “If we don’t raise money then we can’t make a difference. We need to be sure we are absolutely as effective as we can be.”

Current commitments include more than £555,000 to hire specialist staff such as clinical nurses, a research ­radiographer and a haemato-oncology nurse practitioner. Nearly £23,000 has gone towards advanced medical equipment including electric frame beds, a pulpit walking frame and a specialist chair for patients suffering from malignant spinal cord compression.

The charity has also expanded the range of complementary therapies on offer at its flagship Wellbeing Centre located next to the Beatson’s facilities within the Gartnavel Hospital site. And nearly £366,000 has been committed to extending wellbeing services to the new Lanarkshire Beatson facility at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie.

The Wellbeing Centre helps patients relax and find relief from pain, insomnia, nausea, phobia and anxiety while they are undergoing treatment. In addition to Lanarkshire, plans are in place to develop this service at other related facilities across the west of Scotland, including the New Victoria Hospital, the Royal Alexandra and the new South Glasgow University Hospital.

It’s the kind of thing that makes a real difference to people’s lives, and is the sort of motivation that has underlined Welch’s career throughout.

Born and raised in Glasgow, Welch left university with a degree in economics before joining the Boots pharmaceutical chain as a sales manager. He went on to spend about seven years in retail, working his way through a variety of management posts with BHS and Marks & Spencer.

“I feel it gave me a really good grounding in business, but what became clear is that I really wanted to work overseas,” he says now, adding: 
“I always had this desire to do a job that would help people, but I was never ­really clear about what that was until I found it.”

The epiphany came at the end of 1993 with the opportunity to set up a Scottish operation for international aid agency Concern. This allowed Welch to be based out of Scotland while also travelling abroad.

His first posting was to Angola, which at that time was in the second phase of major fighting in its 27-year civil war.

“From retail in Scotland to war-torn Angola – that was quite a jump,” Welch recalls.

He spent six years with Concern, travelling to other distressed countries such as Rwanda before taking a similar post with Mercy Corps. That included postings to China and Bangladesh, among other countries.

Despite the difficult circumstances in these locations, Welch describes a “great sense of privilege and pride” at being involved. The work, he says, was life-changing.

“I still like that type of work and I miss that type of work, but it is the kind of work that I don’t think you can do forever,” he says.

In an effort to settle down, he took the job of director of fundraising at Highland Hospice in Inverness, where he worked for five years before going on to Yorkhill Children’s Charity in the same capacity. He joined Beatson about six months before the merger of the two predecessor organisations, and helped lay the groundwork for bringing the two charities together.

It’s a cause close to his heart, as his father died of a brain tumour in 2009. In terms of Welch’s job, this again is both a blessing and burden.

“There is no doubt about it, that is a hugely motivating factor, but it can also be a challenge as well,” he says.

“It can be an emotional job at times, and you have to manage that.”

Beatson Cancer Charity has upped its fundraising target to £4.1m for the coming year, and aims to be at £5m within three years. Ultimately, Welch wants the organisation to reach annual donations of £12m or more, putting it in line with the UK’s largest cancer hospital charities.

These include the Royal Marsden in London and the Christie in Manchester, both of which have associated charities raising annual funding of that order. As the UK’s busiest cancer centre – as well as the UK’s second-biggest – Welch argues that Beatson deserves the same.

“We certainly aspire to moving towards those kinds of levels in the coming years, but it will take some time to get there.”