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What I’ve Learned: A Charity CEO’s insights into getting back into the classroom


Susan O’Dwyer joined Make-A-Wish in October 2006 as Development & Fundraising Manager, after spending 12 years with the Irish Heart Foundation and over 18 years in the fundraising sector. She became CEO in October 2009. 


A big part of my day is still fundraising.

That means ringing up contacts, developing potential partnerships, persuading people that Make-A-Wish is such a special charity and needs the support. We help children who are battling serious illnesses like leukaemia, cystic fibrosis and duchenne muscular dystrophy. Some of these children do not have the luxury of time… so you have to have a brass neck!

In my day job no two days are the same. 

My job is very varied from strategy to operations. Whether it is motivating the team around targets, looking at new ways to engage and recruit volunteers – the life blood of any charity -nor discussing how to improve/strengthen our marketing message. In light of the recent sectoral damage – this also means ensuring that our donors, potential donors and partners understand how compliant we are – what type of governance we have.  I don’t have a PA – so there is also the filing, general admin, meetings to be booked. Your day is long and time management is key – it is imperative that you can juggle a lot of things all at once.

The charity sector needs to be run like a business.  

The sector itself has been calling for regulation for a long time. Now that we have the regulator appointed we need some patience to allow for time to rebuild the trust that has been eroded.

From a female point of view you have that whole guilt thing that you should be doing it all.

I was considering the Diploma for about two years backed by our Chairman and Board but I wasn’t sure that I could balance it with work and family commitments.  I admit that even after I read up on it, and spoke to people in the IMI, I hadn’t realised how much work would be involved.  I’m a perfectionist – so doing the management audit – there were moments that I definitely felt I couldn’t read enough or that I didn’t have enough time.  But I remember sitting at the PC at home submitting the final document – I had read it front to back and sideways – and when I finally hit ‘submit’ my son, who has just finished 1st year in Trinity College,  handed me a glass of wine – I think we had shared a similar experience!

As a CEO you need to be comfortable with self-doubt.  

You must realise you are not always going to be right – but you will learn from the mistakes.  I will now argue with myself and I am comfortable knowing that I have enough skills, experience and now, enough perspective to make the decisions I need to make.

Accreditation feels very different to other recognition you get in your career.

There is something about that qualification, that validation: you stop second-guessing yourself.  My team say I’m clearer on what needs to be done.

I think my marketing manager breathed a sigh of relief after I came out of the Diploma.

Because suddenly the CEO is talking the language!   I now realise that it is everything we do, every time we open our mouths, every time a letter goes out … it is marketing.  

Peer networks are invaluable and everyone could use a mentor that they can have an argument with. 

It’s important to share frustrations, ideas, build potential partnerships.  In some ways I felt a little exposed starting the Diploma.  I realised immediately it was about everyone having a different angle and everyone having something to give.  The support that I got from the experience, particularly during the difficult time in the sector was phenomenal.  The 3 days each month were in a strange way – an oasis of calm – we were are undergoing exactly the same journey.

We have to keep driving demand even if it means challenging our ability to meet that demand.

At Make-a-Wish we get applications for 180 wish children per annum who need support right now – current funding will grant around 150 of those wishes.  We know from looking at the statistics – that there is no saturation point.  So we’re constantly driving initiatives with companies and in schools. From a strategic point of view knowing that you’re not meeting demand is a challenge that we continually strive to overcome.

The day you don’t have a passion for what you do is the day you need to leave. 

Every member of the team in here will go that extra mile – you want to make that difference – anyone who got to work with our team would be blessed.  We are navigating an incredibly different charity environment – yes it’s going to be a bumpy ride, yes we need more funds to be coming in, but we are holding our own and we just need to keep on that steady path.

Click here if you are interested in knowing more about Make-A-Wish Ireland.

Click here for more on IMI’s Diploma in Management or Master of Business journey which includes the MSc and MBs pathway or contact our programme advisors on 1800 22 33 88. 


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