The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry garnered a long-list nod from Booker Prize judges – and two million worldwide sales – with an inspirational tale of how an unexpected letter sent its hero on the journey of his life.
It’s not a link the enjoyably unpretentious Cait Allen would make, but as she recalls her move from the high-pressure environment of strategic PR to leading the Round Table, one of Britain’s best-known charities, it feels right that her current bed-time read is Rachel Joyce’s novel. Not that it’s always easy for her to find time to turn the 320 pages, especially given the presence of twins, Naomi and Eve, who turn seven in June.
“I love this job, but the hours are long and there’s always an event to go to, and new people to meet, so when I’m not working I’m usually with my husband and the girls, or down the gym, lifting weights,” admits Cait, who’s based at the historic charity’s headquarters in Edgbaston, Birmingham.
“I do believe in being involved with the area where you live though, so I’m also a community governor at the girls’ school, St Mary’s C of E Primary, in Selly Oak. I really enjoy supporting the school and understanding how everything works.”
Three years ago though, she was at the crossroads of her career, having previously been tempted both to Birmingham, and into the communications industry, following a degree in English Literature at Lancaster University.
“I’d always loved words and writing – when I was a teenager, I’d wanted to be a journalist – and I’d studied English, philosophy and communications, so it made sense to go into PR,” recalls Cait. “I went down to London for a couple of interviews, but didn’t fancy working there, and started working for a small agency in Birmingham. I met Marcus, now my husband, and I really loved being here.
“I gradually started broadening my range of work, and joined the Qualifications & Curriculum Development Agency as head of external relations. It was relocating from London to Coventry, and then we were told it was being closed.
“I enjoyed the challenges, especially having a strategic role, but had gradually decided that education and government weren’t for me. They were both just too bureaucratic.”
Then, like Fry in Joyce’s novel, Cait received a letter she didn’t expect, which set her off on a new journey – and against the counsel of those she knew best.
“I’d registered with an executive employment site and uploaded my CV, not that I really expected anything to happen,” she admits. “Then I heard from a head-hunter, asking if I’d be interested in the chief executive’s position at Round Table. I didn’t know much about it, only that it was an organisation for men, and that it had been around for a long time.
“I went for an interview, thinking I’d been invited as a token female candidate, but later I met two board members, and I realised that it was all real, and began wondering if I might even be offered the job.
“Everyone except Marcus was really negative though. Some said I wouldn’t be hired because I was a woman, others said I wouldn’t be able to change its culture, that I wouldn’t be able to modernise the organisation, which was what the board members said they wanted.”
Even on a first meeting though, it’s evident that Cait is someone to be enthused rather than dismayed by the thought of a serious challenge: “The more I heard, the more I began to fancy the job. Like all membership organisations, it had been declining for 35 years, but I liked the idea that it was run by volunteers who wanted to put something back into their local community.
“It wasn’t a job where you were going to be paid lots of money, and be given a big car, but it was a great chance to really make a difference to an organisation which only exists to do good. When the letter arrived offering me the job, I asked Marcus for his thoughts and he said: ‘Go for it’, so I did and started in April 2011.”
Her first target was to stabilise the long-term decline in membership – by 2015 – and then to reverse the trend throughout the UK’s network of branches, known as ‘Tables’.
“Round Table has always had a flawed business model,” she jokes, “because we kick out our most successful ‘customers’ when they reach the age of 45, so we typically lose between 400 and 450 members every year.
“However, to look at that another way, the organisation is constantly regenerating itself. People used to have to leave at 40, and still do in some overseas Tables, but here, it’s 45.”
Cait began by conducting a feedback exercise among members, to get a proper feel for their perceptions, then devised a 10-year strategy.
“I think everyone needed to realise if they were doing things because they still made sense, or just because they’d always been done,” she says. “Round Table was founded in the 1920s, so there were certain things which they did – standing to toast the Queen, wearing jacket and ties, and then taking them off at a certain point, and wearing regalia – which were perfectly natural then, but felt rather out-of-place nowadays.
“Now, most members wear Round Table polo-shirts at meetings and during events, and instead of formal regalia, they have lapel badges. I encourage everyone to create their own sense of history, and give them freedom to run their Tables how they see fit.”
It’s understandable that an organisation established in the volatile economic and social environment of the inter-war period clung to its original practices, although that was at odds with the instincts of its founder, Louis Marchesi.
Just a glance at the life of the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who set up the first Round Table in Norwich in 1927, reveals an intriguing and passionate character – far from the stereotypical image of Tablers which lingers in the minds of outsiders.
Marchesi – born to an Irish mother and Swiss father – joined the British Army when still under age, was torpedoed off the Cape of Good Hope but rescued after a 10-hour ordeal, and went on to serve throughout the First World War.
In 1927, at an industrial fair in Birmingham, he was inspired by the Prince of Wales, who urged young men to ‘get together round the table’ to adopt methods from the past, adapt them to current needs and then to improve them. Just weeks later, Marchesi set up the Round Table as a club for young men in business, with the motto which has survived until today: ‘Adopt. Adapt. Improve’.
Ten years on, the organisation had more than 100 Tables in Britain, its first overseas arm had been established in Copenhagen, and it had acquired its then national headquarters in London’s Ludgate Hill.
Having reached the age of 40, Marchesi was officially ‘disqualified’ from membership, but continued his involvement until his death in 1968, by which time the organisation had some 28,000 members in more than 900 Tables. Nor did he lose his taste for derring-do during the Second World War, using his linguistic talents to work with Britain’s fledgling espionage networks.
“There had always been an ethos for change, as the motto makes clear, but although Round Table had been enormously popular, and raised hundreds of millions for charity, it
had lost something of its original nature,” admits Cait.
“It’s always been non-sectarian and apolitical, which people still find attractive, and its strength has always been about helping local communities, but it did need to be modernised. At the same time, you can’t impose radical change on an organisation
run almost entirely by volunteers.
“I’ve got three staff here in Birmingham, and we’re the only full-time employees, so change has always got to be through evolution. I keep in touch with Louis Marchesi’s son, Peter, who still lives in Norwich, and he’s very comfortable with everything we’re trying to do.”
Highlighting the merits – and occasional dangers – of social media was an early initiative, and most Tables now have their own Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
“Making contact with your community is at the heart of Round Table, so anything which gets more people in touch with each other is great,” says Cait. “I soon found that for a lot of people, being a member had been life-changing. They’d made new friends, learned new skills and often become more confident and outgoing. We certainly get very few leavers before they turn 45.
“The changes appear to be working: membership has been stabilised well ahead of target, and we have some really strong new clubs. The Penkridge Table was our fastest-growing in the country during 2013 and Lichfield is also doing very well.
“However, I also found that there’s no common denominator for success. Harrogate is our biggest Table, but Cardiff runs the city’s biggest fireworks display, which brings in around £20,000 every year.
“Some Tables are event-driven, others are more focused on activities, but they’re all committed to improving their communities, and any profit they make goes straight back into new projects.
“I go to as many Tables as possible, and when we’re on holiday, I usually sneak off to a local event just to meet new members, because I think it’s important to be highly accessible and visible, and hearing feedback is still absolutely crucial.”
Does Cait, aged 38, think she’ll still be leading the charity when her initial 10-year strategy comes to an end though?
“I don’t think anyone can look seven years into the future,” she says. “All I can say now is that it’s like having the best job in the world, because the whole ethos of Round Table is about making friends and having fun to help people.
“I meet Tablers all over the country, and the only reason they joined was because they’re really driven to change their community.
What could be more wonderful?”