At the heart of CHUF 

July 17, 2017

Former civil servant Chris Gray was promoted to become Children’s Heart Unit Fund’s first chief executive a year ago. She speaks to Alison Cowie about the ambitious journey she’s taking the charity on to grow the impact it makes on children and their families affected by congenital heart disease

Chris Gray joined the civil service when she was 16 years old and spent more than 20 years working in a variety of roles covering income support, pensions, child support and social funding.

She was then offered a secondment opportunity at The Prince’s Trust, which was to transform the direction of her life and career.

“I didn’t know much about The Prince’s Trust at the time but my two children were growing up and becoming more independent so I was looking for a challenge,” Chris says. “I initially joined the charity as a business development manager in what was supposed to be a 12-month term.”

Chris stayed at The Prince’s Trust for 15 years, during which time she became head of fundraising and led a small team in its aim to secure £1 million a year to support more than 4000 young people in the North East gain employment, education or training.

Chris intended to remain at The Prince’s Trust until she retired but in 2014 was approached by a recruitment agency – via LinkedIn – about a new position at the North East-based Children’s Heart Unit Fund (CHUF).

“I didn’t know at the time that the position was for CHUF and it was my husband who encouraged me to find out what the job was,” Chris reveals.

“I met Graham Wylie [co-founder of Sage and then patron of CHUF, whose daughter had undergone open heart surgery when she was two days old] and, attracted by the change to work for a North East-based children’s charity, I decided to apply.”

Chris joined CHUF as head of fundraising in January 2014. At the time, the charity only had one other permanent member of staff – Lorraine Embleton – who was supported by a board of trustees and a team of volunteers.

Keen to make her mark, Chris got to work transforming the fundraising strategy of CHUF into a more attractive proposition for corporate and community donors alike.

Within months of Chris’s arrival, though, Lorraine became gravely ill and sadly lost her battle to cancer in autumn 2015.

Chris, who regularly visited Lorraine in hospital, was determined to continue – and build on – the legacy her friend and colleague had created.

Chris set about bringing a more process-driven, businesslike approach to the charity which was inspired by her experience in the Civil Service and The Prince’s Trust.

She worked closely with UNW on digitising and streamlining the accounting and looked to grow the team via key strategic appointments.

For a local charity that had largely relied on volunteers, the task Chris faced was enormous. The scale was not lost on members of the board either – particularly Dr Richard Kirk, a consultant paediatric cardiologist at the Freeman, who was on the verge of moving to the US to take a position as Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern.

Before he left for Dallas, Richard suggested to his fellow CHUF board members that Chris be promoted to the new position of chief executive.

The board agreed and the Chris took up the position in July 2016.

A replacement head of fundraising – in the form of Charlotte Campbell – was appointed to allow the new chief executive to take a more holistic approach to the charity’s operations.

Over a period of 35 years, CHUF has raised more than £10 million, which has allowed it to supply the children’s heart unit at

Newcastle’s Freeman hospital – one of only two hospitals in the UK to perform heart transplants in children – with vital equipment and resources.

This has included unit six echocardiogram machines (totalling £250,000), a new play room and around 90 per cent of the build costs for Scott House (£1.85 million) – a parent’s accommodation facility now run by The Sick Children’s Trust.

More recently, the charity has committed to funding TransMedics (equipment that extends transplant windows from four to up to 24 hours) to the tune of £250,000 over two years while it continues to fund several medical and support salaries at the unit that could not otherwise would be budgeted for.

CHUF’s high-profile charity events, including annual golf days (held at Close House and attended by scores of celebrities), glittering Christmas parties for the children who have been treated at the Freeman’s Children’s Heart Unit, and the famous Big Toddle, a sponsored walk for under fives, have proved hugely successful in terms of fundraising.

Chris’s plan has always been to continue to deliver an exciting and diverse programme of events, and she is now helped by events manager Sam Moralee.

Sam also happens to be Chris’s daughter, although the chief executive is keen to stress that she removed herself from this particular hiring process so not to be accused of nepotism.

Building CHUF’s team in a responsible way is important to Chris.

“One of the things I’m really focused on is recruitment,” she explains. “My advice to anyone is to put the right processes in place – advertise the position property and get the job description right – but be prepared to wait, even if that means there’s a cost to the business.

“If you interview for a position and you take on the wrong person, you’ll pay for that decision further down the line.”

CHUF’s office is based at Fleming Business Centre in Jesmond and members of staff are often joined by volunteers who assist with tasks such as sorting the charity’s merchandise.

Recently, Sharon Hands joined CHUF as community fundraiser to work with individual donors, which will allow Charlotte to focus on corporates.

“Engaging with businesses is important on so many different levels,” says Chris. “We’re currently developing a corporate pack to communicate the ways businesses can help the charity by, for example, holding fundraising events or through corporate volunteering.

“We’re also hoping to launch a corporate challenge in the next 12 months where we will invite employees to use their skills to develop ideas that will benefit the business and the charity.”

Building a more robust fundraising strategy is essential for the ambitious vision Chris has for building the profile and the reach of CHUF.

“One of the problems we have is that people believe that we only help children in Newcastle but that’s not the case. We’ve helped families from all over the North East as well as Bristol, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Manchester and Belfast.”

Prior to Chris taking on the chief executive position, she and the board (which now comprises several legal and accounting professionals) decided to focus on building CHUF’s reach and over the last year, the team has been working with six additional Northern hospitals including the James Cook University Hospital, North Tees Hospital, University Hospital of North Durham, Sunderland Royal Hospital, North Tyneside General Hospital and Cumberland Infirmary.

“It’s very rare that charities will go out and knock on doors but we’ve spoken to these hospitals to ask them what equipment they need to help children with suspected heart disease,” says Chris.

Ultimately, Chris says, the aim is for CHUF to become a national force for good – helping families affected by congenital heart disease from all four corners of the UK.

“I think we can branch out way beyond the North East,” Chris says. “I’m not sure how long that will take; it might not be in my time at the charity but I’m certain I will put CHUF on the right path.”

Ensuring CHUF continues to be recognised for caring about the individuals it helps is also important to the chief executive.

This is no better illustrated than when, at the end of our interview, Chris reveals that she will soon attend her first CHUF wedding.

“I first met [the family] when their little girl was very poorly and I have stayed in contact with them since her heart transplant. I’m very honoured to have been asked to attend her parent’s wedding and to talk to the guests about the work CHUF does.”
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