03 June 2005
The chair of the Charity Commission turned down Rada for a career in social policy. But the theatre's loss has been the voluntary sector's gain, writes Vivienne Russell
Geraldine Peacock admits to being something of a thwarted actress. Indeed, her career would have gone in a very different direction had she taken up the place she won at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art rather than opting for a career in social policy that has led her all the way to the chair of the Charity Commission.
She confesses to a lingering regret that she never pursued her theatrical ambitions – theatre-going remains a passion – but she smiles and reflects that her current job does have its compensations. She recently spent an afternoon with the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre discussing how more could be made of the theatre's charitable status. 'The old theatrical bits of me loved being in the Royal Court for the afternoon,' she says, grinning.
'And I get to make lots of public speeches in this job, so maybe I get the actress out through that.'
Peacock certainly has a command of language. She is eloquent, witty and often disarmingly frank. The theatre's loss has undoubtedly been the voluntary sector's gain.
Under her leadership, the Charity Commission is about to embark on a new strategic direction that will mean that it does much more to help charities get to grips with the challenges they face.
'I want to make the commission an accessible regulator. One that is as enabling as it is scourging. I don't think you can expect people to get it right if you don't give them a foothold,' she says.
She has clear views on charities' role and, as she will tell the CIPFA conference, is exasperated by the view that they are little more than providers of cheap public services.
'It's not just about money,' she says. 'It's about people giving of their knowledge, skills, energy and competence, because often the reason that voluntary organisations don't reach their potential is because they don't have the infrastructural support you find in the private and public sectors.
'But increasingly you find there is work across those sector boundaries, which combine the skills and knowledge of the private and public sectors with the energies, enthusiasms, engagement and passion of the voluntary sector.'
And it's not just about altruism. 'Charity is becoming the new glue of society,' she says. 'Government is having to learn to engage with citizens in different ways and often charitable work is a way in which a citizen will choose to engage with the state.'
She points to plummeting political party membership and declining electoral turnouts. 'Where do people feel their interests are being listened to?' Often it's in the non-profit sector, she says.
Peacock is the first chair of the Charity Commission, appointed in July 2004 following the replacement of a panel of commissioners with an executive and non-executive board.
Fellow commissioner John Williams speaks highly of her directness. 'She's refreshingly straight talking and straight thinking," he says. 'You know where you stand with her and she has a clear sense of direction, which is what you need in a chairman.'
Peacock herself hopes her own background in the sector will help the commission improve relations with it. 'I have run two largish charities and worked in social care and social policy all my life. My chief executive [Andrew Hind] has also worked in a number of charities, so maybe it gives us a greater credibility,' she says.
'Hopefully, we bring with us a culture that allows for more exchanges between the sector and the regulator itself.'
Peacock's own path to the Charity Commission is a varied and quite remarkable one. After being told by her headmistress that she was not clever enough to become a lawyer, and abandoning the Rada offer, she gained a sociology degree from the University of Durham and a masters in criminology from the University of California.
She began work as a lecturer in criminology before qualifying as a social worker. That work allowed her to get a job anywhere and so keep up with her husband, whose oil industry career took him all over the country.
She ended up producing course materials for the Open University in Glasgow. She also wrote the training materials for Scotland's children's panels, which sit in judgement on young offenders.
Peacock is surprisingly honest about the moment her career took off. 'My big break was getting divorced,' she laughs, adding that she is only half joking.
'I had to earn money and divorce gave me the courage to apply for jobs that perhaps tested me more than I thought. I didn't think I'd get them and I did.'
Following a spell in local government as deputy director of the London Boroughs' Training Committee, Peacock made the move to the voluntary sector, becoming chief executive of the National Autistic Society in 1989.
'I was a bit of a late starter at the age of 40. We were virgins together, the NAS and I, because I was their first paid chief executive and it was my first CEO role. But it was a fantastic time to go because contracting was just taking off, Dustin Hoffman had just made Rain Man, so autism was glamorous. We went from a turnover of £4m a year to £32m by the time I left [in 1997]'.
Peacock was then headhunted to be chief executive of Guide Dogs for the Blind, which was facing financial difficulties. The medical for this job brought the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, which she tries to deal with in a matter-of-fact way. Our conversation is interrupted a couple of times as she swallows tablets and sets her alarm.
She refuses to let Parkinson's deter her from her career. 'In many ways, work is the most effective therapy there is,' she says.
'I have early-onset Parkinson's disease and it interacts with everything – your diet, your degree of tiredness, your levels of stress – but it doesn't affect your mind. That's the one thing it doesn't affect, and I think for people to see you, through all the weird contortions your body might make, is the difficult thing.'
Williams says Peacock's condition has not been an issue for the commission. 'Most of us have little experience of Parkinson's but she seems to handle it very well because she's very upfront about it," he says. 'She seems very comfortable with the condition, although I'm sure in reality it can be very tough, but she accepts it, she manages it, she gets on.'
Peacock is a member of the Movers and the Shakers, a group of people who have clocked up achievements despite having Parkinson's. It aims to show fellow sufferers that the condition is no bar to a successful career. 'It's just
a case of mind over matter,' Peacock says. "Working is positively helpful because it gives you your self-respect and makes you stronger.'
Her other interests include writing (she enjoys composing poetry and is trying her hand at a novel) and hill walking. 'I also like to spend time with my family. I have three sons who are grown up now. One lives in Boston, the rest of my family live in Penrith and my partner lives in Canada, so I do a lot of travelling.'