Twitter is an Essential Leadership Tool for This Charity CEO

In my latest Social CEO interview I have the pleasure of talking to Kate Collins, CEO of Teenage Cancer Trust. Kate is very active on Twitter, which was one of the things that drew me to her and why I thought she’d have an interesting ‘social media’ story to tell – and she doesn’t disappoint! As you’ll find out, Twitter is absolutely integral to Kate’s way of working.

The Social C-Suite: Kate, why did you decide to start using Twitter and what do you get out of it?

Kate Collins: I joined Twitter in 2014, after Stephen Sutton’s remarkable fundraising for Teenage Cancer Trust had gone viral earlier that year. At that time I was using Facebook for personal stuff and LinkedIn for professional stuff. I realised, though, that by not being on Twitter I was totally missing out on being able to listen to and speak directly – and pretty much immediately – with people who were engaged in the work of the charity and in supporting us.

I think I’d had Twitter in the box marked ‘extra work’, and probably the one marked ‘digital – needs clever skills’ or even the one that said, ‘scary – beware trolls!’, but the moment I joined I saw it was a way to have conversations with supporters (I was Director of Fundraising at the time). It immediately became simply another place where I could do my job, engage, listen and – sometimes – play. I get so much more out of it than I could have ever have imagined – especially as CEO.

“Twitter is integral to my way of working. I love it!”

When it comes to other social media, I left Facebook ages ago,  and I get frustrated with LinkedIn as every time I log in it seems to simply be people trying to sell me things the charity doesn’t need or recruit me to roles I don’t want (I have one I adore!) – but I can’t imagine doing my job without Twitter. It’s integral to my way of working. I can be in contact with staff, young people, families, Teenage Cancer Trust nurses and youth support coordinators, sector leaders & opinion formers, supporters and smart people who make me think differently – I love it!

Who do you see as your main audience on social media?

I went on Twitter to engage with the audiences I was there to serve as a fundraiser – to thank people, to answer questions, to encourage – and it took a while until I clocked that people might be interested in me/what I thought and that I might have an audience. Having ‘an audience’ still sounds odd, because it’s not about me, but it wasn’t until I started to shift from ‘professional/corporate tweeting’ into a more human, playful (gotta love a GIF!) and just more ‘me’ mode of communicating that Twitter started to play a bigger role for me.

I’d say my ‘audience’ (I much prefer ‘people who might be vaguely interested’!) on Twitter are people who know me/of me through what I do as a job and who want to get a sense of what I think, what I am doing and a bit about what the charity is up to from my perspective.

I share my day, network, encourage, chat, thank, listen and include personal info so people get a sense of me as a person, not as a corporate ‘face’ – for me it’s a chance to bring my role, me as a person and the organisation to life.

Do you have a support network within the organisation to help you with social?

My social presence is very much me – not the organisation – but once I got over 1,000 followers I thought I should probably speak to our small digital team to see if there was anything I should be doing differently/better!

We now plan a bit of content together so I’ve got the hashtags and Twitter info I need when we’re breaking a story/making an announcement, etc, but no-one else tweets for me – I think that wouldn’t work because it just wouldn’t be real – it wouldn’t be genuine.

“Twitter is a chance to bring my role, me as a person and the organisation to life.”

My twitter feed is very much me, it’s not an organisational/corporate thing. The things that get the most engagement are the things that blend personal stuff with work – so a thread I did about my parents running the London Marathon in 1991, on the weekend that Teenage Cancer Trust was the official Virgin Money London Marathon partner this year (2018), was totally from the heart and seemed to be well liked. I definitely have personal/professional boundaries but also I take my ‘whole self’ to work so it would be odd for my Twitter feed to be simply loads of corporate messaging without any ‘Kate’ in there.

Do you have any particular Twitter strategy?

Nothing as grand as a strategy! Twitter for me is a conversation – some things that people want to engage with and talk about one day won’t get engagement on a different day. The approach I take is to listen, respond, try stuff and adapt. My approach to being a CEO is that the whole role is about dialogue and discussion, so what you see on Twitter is pretty much what you get in person (although I can be a bit sweary in person and try not to swear on Twitter!).

Do you ever get any criticism or ‘trolling’ on Twitter? If so, how do you deal with it?

Since becoming CEO I’ve not had to lead the organisation through any hard changes or media crises which might attract criticism, but if I did I’d want to be talking about them on social channels, hearing what people were feeling, explaining why things were happening – just like I would do in person. Like so many charities, it’s harder and harder for us to generate the income we need to do our work, so if that means we need to change the way we work in the future, I’d plan to be leading from the front by talking about it on social and explaining decisions we were taking. I think Mark Atkinson at Scope has really set the standard for this.

I’ve had questions from supporters and parents on a few things to do with their experience and I welcome knowing if we’re not getting things right for people – as well as where we are doing well. I’ve also had a couple of times where the wording of a tweet I’ve done hasn’t landed well (280 characters isn’t always the easiest medium to get right) and someone has told me. I’ve no problem with that – if I could do something better I’d much rather know, but none of that counts as trolling or attacks.

I see you’ve been published on the Huffington Post. How did that come about and do you plan on doing more?

The recent blog I did about the 4th anniversary of Stephen Sutton inspiring the nationt came about because the Huffington Post asked me to do it. I was delighted to be asked and would love to do more publishing, blogging and – if I feel confident enough – maybe even vlogging.

“The opportunity of social media is the conversation.”

I do think the thing to remember is, even though you’re a CEO it’s not about you, it’s about the people your organisation supports, is supported by or who you work for you – ‘what do they need, what do they want to know about, where might my thoughts be interesting or helpful to them?’ rather than ‘what can I do to make myself stand out?’. People can clock a self-promoting CEO in a lot less than 280 characters and they switch off (quite right too!).

What do you think are the biggest challenges (and opportunities) for charity CEOs to tap into social media?

The opportunity is the conversation. The feedback, the dialogue, the insight, the motivation and the depth of what you can discover about the people who care about the work of your organisation is right there, on social media. All the things they don’t like or that don’t work for them are there too – and if you’re not there finding this out, responding and thinking about it, then you can bet your bottom dollar other people are! It’s other places as well as social media, but it’s not a conversation to miss.

“I believe that the CEO is the most senior fundraiser for the charity.”

I think the challenge is time and timing – that’s what people mention to me when I’m trying to encourage them to get on social. Until you do it, tweeting can feel like an extra job  and it’s certainly not something that exists just within a 9-5 pattern. Social is just that – social – and it happens at times when people are not working – evenings and weekends. I have a long commute so do use my travel time to tweet and chat and I also don’t mind tweeting at weekends. Sometimes I put the drawbridge up and sign out on a Friday, but the benefits massively outweigh any challenges for me.

More broadly, how do you think the role of the leaders of non-profit organisations has changed/will have to change as social media becomes more ingrained in society?

Leadership has changed. It’s no longer about hierarchy, decisions and ‘because I said so’. It’s about accountability, engagement, explanation, discussion and – ideally – inspiration. You must do that brilliantly (or try to do it brilliantly) as a leader wherever you are – in person, on the phone, on Skype or on Twitter. I don’t think social media has changed the role of leaders I think the role of leaders has changed and social is a way of leading.

“Leadership has changed. It’s no longer about hierarchy, decisions and ‘because I said so’. It’s about accountability, engagement, explanation, discussion and – ideally – inspiration.”

Teenage Cancer Trust’s Instagram account has a lot of followers. Have you considered signing up for your own Instagram account to better engage with a younger audience?

If you’d ever seen me take a photograph you’d know this might not work! I am a terrible photo-taker – Instagram doesn’t feel like my natural home on social channels – I’m more of a wordy/chatty person so Twitter feels very ‘me’. BUT never say never. We all have to evolve!

You have extensive experience in fundraising – do you bring some of that into your role as a CEO? Does it play a part in your very visible and active presence on social media?

Definitely. I believe that the CEO is the most senior fundraiser for the charity – especially a charity like Teenage Cancer Trust which is totally fuelled by donations. I was drawn to roles in fundraising early in my career because, at its heart, great fundraising is about people, communication and communities changing things for the better. I think all of that is why I enjoy Twitter, as all the same things come through there.

Bearing in mind that the CEO is often the one in the firing line, do you have any sympathy with CEOs who are afraid of Twitter? What are the implications for leaders not engaging on social media?

I think this is a tough one. My immediate response isn’t sympathetic (it’s along the lines of ‘get over yourself and get on Twitter’) but then I think about how important authenticity is. I’m not on Instagram because it’s not my medium, but I’m lucky that Twitter works for me – so who am I to judge someone for not being on Twitter? You have to find what’s right for you – but I do think all CEOs need to engage with social leadership and work out where the conversations happen that they need to be part of. Social media is part of this, but I think it’s bigger than that – it’s a way of leading and being, it’s not solely about tweeting.

“Social leadership is a way of leading and being, it’s not solely about tweeting.”

If you could give advice to other charity CEOs who are reluctant to embrace Twitter, what would it be?

Join. Be curious. Follow people. Look at what works. Try stuff. You might be surprised how much you get back. You don’t have to say anything earth-shattering but do say something! If it doesn’t work you can stop and try something else.


“Join. Be curious. Follow people. Look at what works. Try stuff.” I don’t think I could have said it better myself!