The term ‘purpose driven’ is thrown around too freely these days. Often, it is wielded by over-eager brand managers, but in Averil Power’s case, her purpose is so clearly ingrained in her actions and follow-through, that it’s easy to become enthralled in conversation with her. She speaks with a disarming honesty, an honesty which is informed by a sense of serving the greater good.

Currently the CEO of the Irish Cancer Society, Averil Power has led one of Ireland’s biggest charities through a pandemic which plunged their fundraising into crisis. Much of her career has been informed by that mission; a determination to play a role in rectifying a greater sense of injustice inherited, from, she says, her particular life experiences.

From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of last year, the organisation implemented an emergency response to both address the safety of its service users and also, towards its revenue generation.

“I think the last 18 months have been so tough on everybody, but particularly on people affected by cancer. Having to cope with cancer, in the middle of a pandemic, has just been truly awful. Patients got that news on their own when they didn’t have somebody there to hold their hand; they’ve had to go for chemotherapy appointments on their own with a partner waiting in the car.

“The stress of worrying about the infection risk, which is so much higher when you have cancer and the risk of serious complications from COVID. The emotional and physical toll on cancer patients has been huge,” she begins.

“From the Irish Cancer Society’s perspective, we’ve tried to step up and help with that as much as possible and that’s been an enormous challenge. When COVID hit, it hit our community and our organisation from every direction; demand dramatically increased overnight for services like our Nurseline or our counselling service. We had to figure out how we were going to safely continue to bring cancer patients to their chemotherapy appointments, how we can still safely drive them and protect both them and the drivers.”

At that same point in time, just as the nation was plunged into its first lockdown, they were forced to cancel Daffodil Day, the charity’s biggest annual fundraiser. Daffodil Day could not safely proceed because it was based largely on in-person, community-led events and so, they hosted a digital alternative at the last minute.

“We normally get 20 per cent of our annual income from that day alone. So we were hit with increased demands and at the same time, the bottom fell out of our fundraising.”

They had already been exploring a digital transformation for several months prior, but like the digital ecosystem as a whole, Covid accelerated it. While the charity landscape has evolved over the last 18 months, in the mid-stages of the pandemic last year was a sense of charity fatigue and so, they relied on innovation, creativity and a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who carried them through the pandemic’s darkest days.

Photo: Bryan Meade

“The most challenging part was probably dealing with the logistics of how we were going to keep people safe,” she explains. “At the start, we couldn’t get masks and we couldn’t give them to our frontline nurses.

“We couldn’t get gowns for them in the same way the HSE couldn’t get enough PPE for their own staff,” she says, adding that it was a network of supporters who sourced their own respective networks to provide PPE for the Irish Cancer Society. In addition to frontline safety, their retail stores closed “overnight”.

“For us, I would say it was probably even more challenging than most organisations and I think more than most CEOs probably had to deal with. We have this amazing team; everyone who works in the Irish Cancer Society is passionate about what they do. Everybody just put their hand up and said, ‘Let me help’.

“It’s such a privilege to be able to support cancer patients and their families. I think that’s something that weighs quite heavily on me, that’s really important to me that we have that responsibility, and that means we have to do whatever it takes.”

Averil speaks about the staff at the Irish Cancer Society, including its thousands of volunteers, with a sense of reverence rarely told with such earnestness.

“This desire to see change in the world and help make that change happen comes from a deeply felt sense of unfairness”

She highlights the team at every level of the organisation, “who have come to us, in many cases, particularly at the senior level, who are getting paid a lot less than they will be somewhere else. But they choose to work for us because they want to use their business skills or their tech skills or expertise, to help patients.”

The company features a clearly defined organisational culture, she shares proudly. They are a charity which places its users first, but run with the efficiency of a corporate entity, something she says is crucial in providing the best quality service.

“People need to feel inspired and empowered, and that they’re making a difference and that’s central to everything that we do. I suppose we exist to help people and we can only do that through high-performing people. We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to build both, and it’s something that I’m very passionate about,” she says. “I suppose what drives me, as a leader, is that it’s our shared vision for the organisation.

“In our new strategy, we’ve set an ambition of ending cancer. We’ve gone from over the last 30 years when only three out of 10 people survived cancer to today, when six out of 10 survive. That is phenomenal in such a short space of time. I feel very strongly that we can get from six out of 10 to 10 out of 10. If we look at the scale of medical and scientific advancements that are being made right now, even with COVID vaccines – the fact that we’ve gone from not even knowing what this disease was two years ago, to having not just one or two vaccines, but several millions of doses given out across the world shows what’s possible.

“For me, if we can put a fraction of that energy into cancer after the pandemic; if we can get politicians to show the same commitment companies to ramp up their investment in potential cures for cancer charities like ourselves to invest more in research and public support behind that, I truly believe that nobody has to have their life cut short by this awful disease.”

Inspiring leadership by action is her trademark, and trailblazing is almost second nature dating back to her teenage years; Averil was the first person in her family to sit the Leaving Certificate and attend university.

“This desire to see change in the world and help make that change happen comes from a deeply felt sense of unfairness. And I guess anger, to be honest with you, about how much the opportunities that we have in our lives are shaped by where you grew up, or how much money your parents have,” she says.

“’My background is one of the things that really drives me. I’m really fortunate to have a university education, but I’m the first person in my family to finish school. I was the first person in my family to complete the Leaving Cert, let alone go to Trinity. I’ve seen the opportunities that has given me compared to my siblings who are just as smart but didn’t have that opportunity and my friends that I grew up with, the struggles that they have had compared to the doors that have opened for me by virtue of having a university education is something that I’m very conscious of.

“That’s why, when I was in Trinity, I worked with the Student’s Union (SU). In my final year, I ran in the SU elections and I was Education Officer, then President. I worked on setting up a student shadowing scheme to bring children from disadvantaged areas into Trinity and pair them up to shadow Trinity students to break down some of those cultural barriers. Part of it is really like we need more practical support and we did that through the Trinity Access Programme, but we need role models to show them what is possible.”

Our conversation moves to different access routes to third level education and supports in place to financially support secondary school students who might find the application for the CAO a barrier in itself. Averil’s understanding around this topic is all too real as she recalls struggling to make ends meet in her first year of college to the point where she failed her exams as she was so focused on working to support herself.

Photo: Bryan Meade

“When I got into Trinity, I remember thinking it was such an incredible achievement and I had this path in front of me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve made it.’ And then I failed the first year. I failed because I spent more time working and part time jobs than in college,” she recalls.

“It was because I had to pay for rent, and pay for college and books, and all that stuff that other people could take for granted. So I was working more hours than I was in Trinity. I remember getting my results and thinking I was going to lose my dream. Somebody told me to look into the Student Hardship Fund, which I’d never heard of, and that helped by giving me enough money to be able to take time off during summer and study. To me, that was the difference between a job and continuing college. I was able to take a month off work, study for 12 hours a day and pass the repeats.”

She adds: “That was the difference between me having an education and being in the job that I have now. I suppose I’ve never forgotten that sliding doors moment and not everybody is as lucky as me. Those two doors had two different futures all because of a relatively tiny amount of money.”

Similarly, her sensitivity to socio-economic circumstances informs the Irish Cancer Society’s outreach programmes in disadvantaged areas. “Breast cancer screening rates are maybe high in general, but they’re much, much lower in disadvantaged areas. That’s not because women in disadvantaged areas don’t care about their health, or they don’t realise that they should be checking their breasts, it’s that they’re dealing with five other things which are more urgent or more difficult.

“They’re trying to figure out how they can feed their kids or they’re working in jobs that maybe don’t give them time off to go for health appointments and so they won’t get paid for those hours,” she says.

“There are so many different challenges that people face. They have to put their family’s needs ahead of their own, and all parents do that, but particularly parents who are struggling financially. It’s important to me that we have an understanding that we partner with organisations who are at the heart of those communities to close the gap.”

During our conversation, creating an equitable environment is an omnipresent theme of which she is most proud and a pervading sense of responsibility to improve things for the next generation not to experience the same barriers to education that she did. Personal experience is her driving force as Averil knows all too well the challenges people can face.

“I’m someone from a disadvantaged background who has had incredible opportunities, and is now in a position of enormous privilege. It’s my responsibility to help to change that. Other issues I’ve worked on evolved from things that have been around my personal experiences, like adoption and LGBT rights.”

In Ireland, only one in eight CEOs are women, and her path towards this executive position is a non-traditional one. She admits that her career in politics, which ended in 2016, “feels like a lifetime ago” and it was only at the behest of a friend that she felt emboldened to apply for a CEO position.

“When I finished up in politics, I lost the general election by a handful of votes. One weekend in 2011, my world fell asunder,” she remembers. “A friend of mine sat me down and said to me, ‘Your next move is really crucial in terms of your future career. You need to choose wisely where you go, what you do and what level you go in at. I had been thinking about being a Director of Advocacy somewhere and he told me not to undersell myself, ‘You need to go for a CEO role’.

“I was asking myself, ‘how am I going to run an organisation?’ and he said, ‘Are you kidding me? Think of what you’ve been doing: you’ve been developing strategy, leading and motivating people as a politician, motivating volunteers, coordinating campaigns and fundraising.

“I was approached by the Asthma Society of Ireland to apply for that role [CEO]. They had a process and I worked for a year and a half there. Then PwC, who were recruiting for this position at the Irish Cancer Society, reached out to me.”

She highlights the complementary skill-sets for both positions, including strategy creation and execution, external communications and media training, running campaigns and managing a team of hundreds. Aligned with that are similarities with advocacy and policy development.

She runs the organisation with the efficiency of a commercial body and the sensitivity of an NGO. “I feel that when we deliver services that our goals are not just well intentioned. They need to be top class as if we were a corporate entity working in a competitive marketplace. I am customer centric and I feel that we need to be as customer centric as Amazon. You start with your customer and you design from there. “

Our discussion segues back to women in business; the defining characteristics, the support mechanisms in place and back to her sense of responsibility.

“Women, even at the highest levels, doubt ourselves and need to be encouraged,” she says. “I never would have applied for a CEO job without a push and if I hadn’t, I’d probably now be just one level above where I’d started. So if I’d gone in at say a director level, maybe I’d be a senior director. But now, I’m running one of the biggest charities in the country.

“I also feel a responsibility as a female leader to support women and be honest.

“That’s why I like to be honest in interviews like this because I hope somebody is reading it and realises it’s okay to have doubts but they don’t need to hold you back. I think that one in eight of us female CEOs in Ireland have a real responsibility to encourage other women.”

Her commitment to diversity extends beyond vernacular, it is exemplified in her organisation’s policies and strategic objectives. She recently returned to work after taking maternity leave following the birth of her first child, and has introduced more maternity support for all women in the Irish Cancer Society – once again, shaped by her own experiences.

“Before I had my daughter, things were going amazing in the organisation,” she remembers. “I was feeling really confident about where I was going. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew I would be taking time off for maternity leave and I was struck by this panic and lack of confidence; thinking about how I would manage when I came back, managing a high intensity role and a young baby.

“From talking to other women in our organisation, it seems really common with women around maternity leave. I was fortunate to do coaching before I left and so I had someone help me when I came back and so I told our Director of HR that we need to make that available to everyone.”