Feature of the Month: Gemma Holding CEO of Cancer Support UK

Cancer Support UK (CSUK) provides practical and psychological support to people with cancer across the UK, during and after the treatment period. The charity provides free Cancer Kits to adults and children undergoing cancer treatment and offers a national support service for people struggling with the emotional impact of cancer, Cancer Coach. Services are designed and delivered by people who have experienced cancer themselves – to improve the experience of others.

Gemma Holding has been the CEO of Cancer Support UK since 2015, following a career in the charity sector spanning over a decade. In her first year as CEO of Cancer Support UK, Gemma received a Judges Recognition Award from ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations), acknowledging the significant contribution she made to the organisation and was a finalist for ‘Rising CEO Star’ at the Charity Times Awards 2017.

Matthew Doyle is Chair of Cancer Support UK. After a career in professional and financial services, he currently holds a number of non-executive director appointments and consults on responsible investment and stewardship to pension schemes.


What are the unique challenges that come with running and ensuring the success of a charity in the UK? How do you overcome these?

Gemma: Cancer Support UK is a small charity of just five staff and limited financial resources. When I arrived, my challenge was to ensure we remained relevant when the organisation had not changed materially in over a decade.

In response to this challenge, in 2016, we undertook a comprehensive review of our own services, as well as those on offer elsewhere across the national cancer sector. The review analysed services provided by every other cancer charity in the UK and public bodies.

This review demonstrated that the areas of cancer research and cancer prevention were already delivered well by other charities and public bodies, so it was decided we would no longer continue to invest in these areas. As a charity with limited resources, I wanted to focus on where we could make the most impact – and not duplicate work already being delivered elsewhere.

This led to us embarking on an ambitious turnaround programme for the charity, the biggest change to the organisation since its inception in 2004. It was certainly not without its challenges, but I was delighted that just six months into the change programme, Cancer Support UK was named as a finalist at the Charity Times Awards in the ‘Change Project of the Year’ category.


What has been your proudest moment so far at Cancer Support UK?

Gemma: I am probably most proud of developing two unique services that people with cancer actually want and find useful. The feedback from our Cancer Kits is overwhelming – they really do lift people’s spirits during cancer treatment. I like the fact they are tangible and practical.

I am really proud that we identified mental health as an area of significant unmet need within cancer care – and we were able to design a unique service to directly address it. We developed Cancer Coach as a response to our findings that more emotional support for people with cancer is urgently needed, particularly post-treatment. Designing services alongside people living with cancer has been invaluable, as they know best what they need, and I am always immensely proud when we get lovely feedback from the people we support with our services.


How important is emotional support in the treatment of cancer, in addition to practical support?

Gemma: Emotional help for people with cancer is hugely important. Cancer patients often find that their emotional well-being begins to decline just as their physical well-being begins to improve. Depression is three times more likely in cancer patients than in the general public, and almost half of people with cancer report that the emotional effects are more difficult to cope with than the physical effects. Once physical treatment ends, cancer patients are broadly discharged from healthcare without ongoing support to deal with cancer’s profound mental and emotional consequences.


So how does Cancer Coach help?

Matthew: Cancer Coach will offer a lifeline at exactly this vital point of need: when medical treatment—and the access and support that accompanies it—stops. Moreover, since Cancer Coach can be accessed at any time after physical cancer treatment has ended, each individual can apply and enrol at the time they most feel in need of support.

Delivering Cancer Coach by phone means there are no ‘postcode lottery’ barriers to accessing the service, and it’s less intrusive when people are trying to get back to ‘normal life’ as people can fit the course around work and other commitments.


What are the benefits of a commercial CEO undertaking a Chair of the Board position in the not-for-profit sector?

Matthew: Cancer Support UK was going through a financial and operational transformation when I joined the Board in 2018. Shortly after she had joined, Gemma had identified that the charity was not sustainable, and the governance structure not fit for purpose. My role was to provide a sounding board and additional experience and knowledge to Gemma as she continued the transformation programme and create a board that was fit for purpose to carry out its responsibilities. This included recruiting an additional four board members, looking at board activities—including ensuring that the management were getting enough support and challenge—and looking at the allocation of resources to support the strategy.

Coming from a commercial background rather than a third sector background and stepping into the Chairs role has allowed the organisation to take a different and more progressive approach to the management of risk, financially and operationally. An example of this was an investment the Board agreed to make in late 2018 to increase the size and the quality of the fundraising team. This represented a significant investment for CSUK and a significant commitment of the organisation’s reserves. But coming from a commercial background, the board were able to make a decision to proceed. The early indicators are that this will pay off in line with the board’s expectations, with our first major corporate partnership signed and a strong pipeline for further partnerships in the next twelve months.


How does the role of a CEO in a charity such as CSUK differ to those of other lines of business or industries?

Gemma: I would say that operationally, the role of a CEO of a charity is no different than that of any other business or corporate. However, in my role I am equally as concerned with outcome as I am with income. Charities have to operate as effectively as our counterparts in business. For us to be sustainable we need to be agile to change, have a unique offering in the marketplace and evolve as the world around us changes to ensure that we remain relevant. This is what Cancer Support UK has done and it has worked well.


Can corporates engage with CSUK for mutual benefit?

Gemma: Yes, absolutely! Partnerships between commercial organisations and charities can stimulate a range of business benefits for the corporate partner. These include excellent PR opportunities to extend an organisation’s Corporate Social Responsibility credentials, with consequential benefits to their staff. It is generally recognised that CSR programmes and active partnerships with charities can stimulate high levels of engagement within their organisation.

Corporate partners have a range of skills and expertise within their business that are valuable to a small charity like ours. A partnership could include sharing of expertise, marketing or guidance – on an ad hoc basis or a time-limited project.

Supplying or sponsoring the content of our hugely popular cancer kits is something we are currently exploring as this presents an excellent product placement opportunity for the right business, as 99% of recipients say they would buy the contents of the kit again.

Therefore, not all support is financial. However, financial donations generated from any partnership have a significant, positive financial impact for CSUK – and in turn, a direct, positive impact on the number of people we can support. The income of CSUK is around £500k compared with Macmillan’s £250 million, so financial support from a corporate would genuinely help CSUK grow our services and increase the number of people that can benefit from them.


What does a corporate partnership look like?

CSUK does not have a large ‘corporate partnerships’ team, so any partner will have effective and direct communication with the people delivering frontline services, with the CEO and with the Trustees. This ensures that the engagement between corporate and charity partners is personal and meaningful. In addition, working with a small charity like CSUK, where there is less red tape and bureaucracy, ensures that new ideas and initiatives can be agreed and executed quickly.

We believe we are at the start of something incredible… and we want commercial partners and their people to share the journey with us.


If you would like to get in touch with Gemma about anything related to this article, please email:


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