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Charity Careers 6: meet Susana Lopez, Head of Leadership Giving at Cancer Research UK

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Welcome back to Charity Careers, in which freelance writer Nicola Greenbrook invites key influencers in the charity sector to share their career story and how they navigate the professional world. We discover what they've learned along the way, what motivates them to get up in the morning and what their dream breakfast might look like when they do...

In these extraordinary times, Nicola was delighted to chat (virtually, of course) to Susana Lopez, Head of Leadership Giving for Cancer Research UK about her impressive career to date and balancing parenthood with the personal reasons that drive her work for CRUK.

She also learned how the charity is responding to COVID-19 and why breakfast in Spain, the complete works of Austen and Tiger King are a few of Susana's favourite things…



Hi Susana - we know the name of course, but how would you sum up CRUK's mission and cause?

In the 1970s, just 1 in 4 people in the UK survived cancer. Today, thanks to research, that figure has doubled. At Cancer Research UK (CRUK), our ambition is to continue to accelerate this progress so that 3 in 4 people survive cancer by 2034. 
 
As the largest independent funder of cancer research in the world, we define global research priorities. Untethered to government funding, we can react rapidly and have the agility to support courageous, risk-taking science. Since our beginnings in 1902, our work has helped uncover the causes of cancer, leading to some of the earliest studies into risk factors, including the link between smoking and cancer. We also laid the foundations for the UK’s national cancer screening programmes and today’s radiotherapy and surgery techniques, and we have contributed to developing eight of the world’s top 10 cancer drugs.  
 
Today, we support more than 4,000 nurses, researchers and doctors across a network of exceptional cancer research centres and partner with more than 80 organisations all over the world. 
We cover every aspect of cancer research and every step of the cancer journey, from our patient information programmes to prevention, diagnosis and treatment.  

 
What are you responsible for in your role?

My role is really varied! I head up Leadership Giving which sits within the wider Philanthropy and Campaigns team.

We work with amazing supporters who want to make a difference by investing in truly cutting-edge research and support. This includes the Catalyst Club, dedicated philanthropists working with us over the long term to have an impact on key areas of CRUK's work; early diagnosis, developing the next generation of science leaders, and the new City of London centre.


What drew you to CRUK and when did you join?

I’ve had two stints here; from 2006 to 2015 I was a trust fundraising manager and then a senior manager in CRUK's first capital campaign team, Create the Change, raising £100m for the development of the Francis Crick Institute in Kings Cross. I came back to the organisation in November 2019 as Head of Leadership Giving.  
 
The simple answer as to why is that cancer has had a profound impact on my life and my family; we lost my mum to ovarian cancer eight years ago; the treatments that kept her well for nearly four years post diagnosis were in part developed by CRUK. All four of my grandparents died of cancer, and too many other family members. I'm an Arts graduate, so was never going to go into science and find new and better treatments myself, but I can put my shoulder to the wheel in the fundraising efforts and secure the investment needed for cancer research. 

We're hearing much more about medical research in these unprecedented times of course, albeit for a different reason. How has the current pandemic impacted CRUK and your role in particular?

Michelle Mitchell, our CEO, has been very open on the impact of COVID-19 on CRUK; unprecedented times indeed. We’ve had to close our shops, and postpone huge events like Race for Life and the gala events which really drive our fundraising programme, and are predicting a 25% drop in income this year, potentially more. 
 
The organisation has renegotiated leases on shops, made full use of the government's Job Retention Scheme by furloughing a large number of staff, and made every saving possible in order to protect the investment we make in the front-line science. Even so, we've had to make some tough decisions about the science we can fund, and have had to plan for cuts to that spend.  

Within my role, we work closely with senior volunteers, ambassadors who are willing to open up their networks and introduce potential supporters to our work, often through a range of events. Obviously we can’t plan those events currently, so we have had to almost throw out the old plans and start afresh.  
 
This could be terrifying, but has actually felt very liberating - we have permission to think outside of the box, and to really get insight from our supporters as to what they feel will work, and trial some new ways of working.  


 
How did you start your career and what have been the key roles?

My first role was as a trust fundraising executive at YMCA England. I'd returned to my home town (after a post-uni year in Spain) to find everyone had scattered, mostly to London! So when a friend contacted me to say there was an entry level role at YMCA England where she was working, I applied.  
 
Although I knew nothing about fundraising (amazing to think now that there once was a time when these roles were available to someone with no fundraising experience), I quickly realised that it was a perfect role; lots of talking to colleagues in service delivery about what they were planning and what the impact would be, creative and impactful writing, talking to potential supporters and asking for advice and selling in the work and the difference it would make to homeless and disadvantaged young people. 
 
I've since worked in a range of organisations at a range of levels and I don’t know if there are roles I would pick out as being particularly key. Maybe my senior manager role at CRUK the first time around (!) as it really exposed me to working with amazing senior leadership and senior volunteers and to work with really significant supporters to secure multi million pound gifts towards a capital appeal, and to see how a campaign really works.  
 
What I would say is that there have been people who have been key to my career; from my first manager at YMCA England, Christine Douglas, who taught me how to structure a trust proposal and how to write for impact, through to Jennifer Cormack at CRUK who showed me how to lead a team collaboratively. 
 
Debbie Gilbert at St Giles Trust showed me how to show up as a leader (and never to take no for an answer!), Catherine Miles at Anthony Nolan showed me how to manage upwards and protect your team, and Russell Delew at CRUK gave me the opportunity to work on what was at the time CRUK's biggest capital campaign and secure some of the biggest gifts of my career…


Was a charity career always your goal?

It really wasn’t; I didn’t know what fundraising was when I applied for my first job in the sector.

From childhood I wanted to be a journalist, but fell out of love with the idea on graduation (although three of my family are journalists on TV and in print now, so I feel I'm living the dream vicariously through them!) and I was at a loss what to do with the skills an English Literature degree and a naturally nosey nature had fitted me for.  
 
Luckily it turns out being inquisitive, talkative, with a good memory and a way with words is a perfect basis for a career in trust and major gift fundraising.  

 
How do you keep your skills fresh and ensure continuous learning along the way? 

I'm a huge fan of continuous learning - we can all learn something new. I've been working as a fundraiser for 25 years (ARGH) and still enthusiastically sign up for the Institute of Fundraising Convention each year alongside interesting looking briefing events, and especially the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration’s (SOFII) annual I Wish I'd Thought of That event.  
 
I also think it's imperative to learn from your peers and keep your ear to the ground with what's happening across the sector to ensure you don’t end up in your own little organisational bubble/echo chamber. To that end, I set up a networking group and invited people I met across the sector to come along; we meet four or five times a year and share news, ask questions, ask for support and advice and make connections. It's fascinating to see how other organisations deal with the challenges we all face - we're meeting in May, and I can't wait to hear how everyone is dealing with COVID-19!


 
What would you advise graduates seeking to join the sector, or more experienced people considering a leap into leadership?

When I'm interviewing, I always look for behaviours over a skill set, so my only advice to graduates would be show flexibility, how you've taken on new responsibilities or roles, and your willingness to learn. Skills can be taught.  
 
For people moving into leadership - choose the organisation carefully! I’m being half-facetious, but the serious point is to look at how the organisation supports its managers and leaders, what's expected of them, and what training there is internally - for example on managing a team, conducting 121s and annual reviews.
These skills are key to managing and too many organisations think they’re innate. They aren't, as anyone who has suffered with a badly trained manager will tell you.

Aside from that, be open, honest and transparent - turn up as yourself, and as authentic as you can be. When times get hard, it's tough to maintain a facade! And finally, approach someone you admire and ask them if they'd be willing to act as a mentor. I've listed some of the people who have been key to my career, but I've learned so much from so many people across the sector which has been invaluable.


 What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Christina Grant (who contributed to your article on how to be assertive at work) had a profound impact on me when she worked at CRUK as a trainer.

I use some element of her Raising The Bar training and coaching every single day in my work life; the key one is 'Human beings like threes'. Every single meeting opener, presentation, 121, PDR, whatever, I frame around three key points, because it works!


 What’s the most challenging part of the job?

I’ve had lots of challenging jobs, and roles that I’ve left because I couldn’t see how I could make a useful contribution. I can honestly say that I don’t feel that way in my current role; the only challenge, as cheesy as it sounds, is sometimes reining a really ambitious team in!

And the best bit?

Where to start? The pride in knowing the work we do has a direct impact on cancer, and today, on COVID-19 as CRUK pivots to working on vaccines and treatments for the pandemic, and releases clinicians and nurses back into the NHS to work on the front lines of coronavirus.  
 
Working and being in awe of world leading medical researchers who are answering the toughest questions of cancer. Working with world leading fundraisers from whom I can learn so much. And knowing that my mum would be so happy that I've come back to CRUK, an organisation that she supported.




What have been your career's biggest ups and downs to date?

Up: working with a family who were keen to support an area of work, and who, after a couple of false starts, agreed to an initial gift of £1.1m, and then a further gift of £5m towards a campaign. I secured that gift just before going on maternity leave, so there was a nice completeness to it!
 
Down: working up a huge proposal, full agreement from the finance team and CEO, all ready to go just before Christmas, for a January board meeting date. My ‘spidey sense’ was tingling, though, so I thought I'd make one last check with the project lead. After a couple of days they came back with 'Oh, we've decided not to do that anymore'. It was, I'm afraid to say, the final nail in the coffin for my time at that organisation!

Who do you look up to in the sector or more widely?

One of my oldest and dearest friends is a sister in A&E in our home town; I’m always in awe of her, but especially at the moment.  My sister is a primary school teacher. and after four weeks of trying to teach a six year old, I'm in awe of her, and in fact all teachers.  
 
Across the sector, I look up to those people who walk the walk not just spout the theory - I'm loathe to name names as I know I'll leave someone out, but the people who have closed the big gifts, grown income streams, got senior leadership buy-in for major gift fundraising and in doing so created transformational growth.



Let's finish with some quick lifestyle questions: are you up with the lark or a night owl?

Left to my own devices, I would go to bed at 8.30pm and sleep til 9.00am. I love sleep. Juggling a small child and a full-on job, the lie-ins are less frequent although I am blessed with an early bird husband, so I definitely get more than my fair share!

What gets you out of bed in the morning, rain or shine?

Usually the six year old asking questions about dinosaurs, trains or planes ... more seriously: deadlines and wanting to get on and make a difference. Urgh, that sounds awful. But true!

And what's your dream (and actual) breakfast once you're up?

Dream breakfast - lockdown over and travelling again - would be some mixture of fresh eggs, bread and fruit overlooking the sea somewhere hot and beautiful. If it could be the motherland of Spain, so much the better. Actual breakfast more likely to be overnight oats with yoghurt whilst logging on …

Does a typical day exist?

Not really, but it would usually involve checking in with the team, checking in with senior managers, or looking over proposals and reports for donors to feed in my thoughts: after 25 years of doing the job, it's really key to me to share what I was taught and what I've learned the hard way! 
 
Also planning, taking part in some thinking about upcoming projects or launches, and best of all, meetings and calls with supporters and senior volunteers to talk about the work of CRUK, and to solicit their support in a variety of ways.



What are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment?

I'm an English Literature graduate who, in another life, would have been at my most content lost in an English department somewhere writing an interminable thesis on Austen. I have weird reading tastes - early 19th century fiction and contemporary US fiction. My favourite authors are Jane Austen, Curtis Sittenfeld, Tom Woolfe and Jonathan Frantzen. I could happily just read them for the rest of my life. Oh, and Mhairi McFarlane for cracking modern UK writing.
 
I have absolutely gutter tastes in TV though; Tiger King was a recent highlight and aside from that, rubbish reality TV, especially the Real Housewives franchise, or what my husband calls 'your programmes about ladies shouting at each other’.
 
I’m relatively new to podcasts, and just didn't get them at all until I came across Gossipmongers and I’m now a convert. Best. Podcast. Ever.

And finally, how do you wind down in your spare time?

If I have any, I like to switch my brain off with things that are detailed but mindless like knitting. I make many, many scarves, as that's about the limit of my skills. I dream of being able to make something more complicated.  


 

A huge thank you to Susana, we very much appreciate you taking the time to share your story, career insights and invaluable advice with our readers - we wish you and CRUK all the very best in the challenging weeks ahead, and of course for the future!

Nicola Greenbrook - HR Specialist and Freelance Writer
 ​
Contact Nicola, check out her website or follow her on Twitter, or for more on 
Cancer Research UK and why they need you more than ever, please visit their website.






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