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Things I Now Know: Lindsey Bennister

Lindsey Bennister joined MQ as our new Chief Executive in May, after eight years as the first Chief Executive of Sarcoma UK. She developed Sarcoma UK into a leading national charity, investing in ground-breaking cancer research. Now she’s determined to make mental health research the long-term solution to understanding, treating and supporting the millions of people affected by mental illness.

As part of this new series, we spoke to Lindsey about things in life she's learned, her influences and her inspirations...

I was the child who did the one thing every child is told not to do. One of my earliest and clearest memories is being rushed to hospital to have my stomach pumped after eating poisonous berries from the garden. I have a recollection of every single thing that happened that day. I’m definitely a bit more cautious now – it probably made me quite sensible! 

Bob Geldof was my role model growing up. He was the epitome of challenging, anti-authority. He really spoke to me as a teenager growing up in a small town. Live Aid cemented to me that he had credibility and a real, genuine concern for people. That was a defining moment for me as a young person - being inspired by someone who wanted to change the world.

I never realised how much my grandparents influenced my values. My father’s parents were from Manchester, from a working-class background. They never owned a house and there was something special about their world – the world of community and family and making the best of what they had. I’m very proud to have that background – it was important to see there are different worlds out there.

My biggest obstacle is one that I’ve put in my own way. It’s a fear of not being good enough. Coming from that working-class background, growing up in a mining town in the Midlands, there was always that feeling. I went to university but was never hugely academic - and most of what I’ve learned has been through experience. The people I’ve surrounded myself with have been people who see my potential.

The charity sector has changed significantly in the last 20 years. It’s become far more professional and accountability is much higher. The focus on transparency wasn’t anywhere near as significant then, as charities were trusted institutions. Something that hasn’t changed, though, are the hugely committed people who choose to work in the sector. They choose lower salaries and they choose to give their lives to contributing to society. 

With my role as Chief Executive of Sarcoma UK came an absolute point of recognition that I’m on this planet to do things that benefit other people. Not only was I leading an organisation – and dealing with all the challenges that come with it - but also having incredibly intense contact with our beneficiaries and seeing the direct impact of our work. It was a very happy time, combined with moments of intense sadness; I lost volunteers and board members I’d worked closely with. What keeps you going is an absolute commitment and belief that you're doing something to make things better.

Although two thirds of the voluntary sector workforce are women, leadership positions are still dominated by males. I think women feel they have to be absolutely better than anybody else to consider applying for Chief Executive roles. Fundraising in particular is still often about engaging in male-dominated industries. I’m part of a network of female charity Chief Execs who get together once a month and put the world to rights. We champion and support each other.

There are so many statistics about mental health, but the fact that 1 in 4 people in the UK experience mental illness always sticks with me. There are stats about cancer that are nowhere near as dramatic, yet people are so much more willing to engage with it. My daughter has anxiety and I don’t think it’s necessarily about research saying, “If you do this, your anxiety will go away.” The more we can understand what the causes might be, the quicker we can offer life-changing ways to help.  

There’s something really exciting about being part of MQ. Research as a solution for mental health problems is a concept that needs championing. Coming from a cancer research background I can see huge potential. But there’s also an energy about the organisation - a sense of disruption and pushing the boundaries - that I find really attractive. There’s something very special about the people who work here.

Now that I’m older, I find contentment in small things. I’m lucky to have a park within two minutes of my house and I walk my dog there most mornings. I see the seasons change and I watch him run around for a ball. There’s something very fulfilling and pure watching something that has no worries in the world, who’s just happy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a bit more like that?

Last updated: 5 September 2018

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