Pilotlight | Elaine Madison and Liz McRobb



Elaine Maddison is a busy woman. As part of the management team at Alliance Trust, the Dundee based investment and savings business, she’s been responsible for over a hundred members of staff and thousands of customers. So, it’s not surprising that volunteering was not top of her to do list. Indeed, when her CEO first suggested she consider giving her time and skills through the charity Pilotlight, Elaine admits her immediate thought was: “that’s very interesting, now how on earth do I do this? How do I juggle volunteering with not just my work but my family life as well?”

Like many people, Elaine’s experience of charities was limited. “I had given money and been encouraged to volunteer through my company but I always found it really hard to fit in. I would plan to go and volunteer at a soup kitchen but then I’d never quite manage to do it.” Indeed, Pilotlight was set-up over ten years ago because it recognised that senior business people had a lot to offer charities in terms of their skills but were short of time. Any successful relationship would need to be structured and well managed to fit easily into a busy work life. So, the business teams put together by Pilotlight work with a charity over the course of a year, meeting once a month to mentor and coach the charity chief executive.

Elaine says it was this structured approach that really appealed. Being placed in a team with other senior business people was also a real eye opener and Elaine says she learnt a lot from working with the charity and other senior executives in this way. “It made me remember the passion that I have for what I do and I was able to take that back into my own organisation. It also gave me a fresh perspective and re-invigorated me when I went back to work. There was also something very powerful about focusing on something else for those three hours a month. You put your blackberry away, you switched off from your day-to-day business life and gave it your full attention. I loved it!”

Pilotlight says it’s a common reaction from the business people they work with. In a recent survey, over 85% of the people who worked with charities through Pilotlight said the experience increased their sense of wellbeing as well as their coaching skills. As charities face a rising level of demand for their services and a tougher funding environment, it’s no surprise that the offer of the support of a top business team is appealing.

Keymoves, which provides temporary emergency accommodation for homeless and vulnerable women in Edinburgh, was finding things hard when they were matched up with Elaine and three other business executives. Rose Turnbull, Chief Executive of Keymoves, says they knew it was the right time for some strategic support: “As a charity we are constantly battling to secure continuous funding so that we can survive and be sustainable. So, coming to Pilotlight enabled us to step outside our day-to-day work and have the time to look at the bigger picture.”

The charity now has a five-year business plan in place and is much more confident about its future.

As well as helping charities to thrive, skills volunteering can also offer professionals a new lease of life when it comes to their own working lives. Liz McRobb, an energy and utilities lawyer with UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn, says Pilotlight came along at just the right time for her. “When I heard about Pilotlight I was feeling a bit stale, I wanted a new challenge and the thought of testing my skills in a new environment was very appealing. I’d be in the same role for a long time so it was perfect timing”. The charity Liz worked with was Phoenix Health Project, a small organisation offering emotional support to vulnerable families and people dealing with trauma and mental health issues in Inverclyde. Project Co-ordinator at Phoenix Health, Duncan Shaw, is in no doubt about how the business volunteers helped them.

“Liz was a phenomenal inspiration for me and our organisation wouldn’t have survived without the support we got. Liz and the others gave me the confidence to make changes and really develop our services. They were tough but fair, compassionate and respectful. The business plan we now have in place has helped us to bring in more funding so that we can increase our services and help more people.”

Liz is just as passionate as Duncan when she talks about the impact working with the charity has had on her, describing it as ‘life-changing’. She has recently become a trustee of homelessness charity, Simon Community Scotland, and says the Pilotlight experience definitely helped her prepare for this new role. “I don’t feel it’s about ‘fitting-in’ volunteering, it becomes a part of who you are and your life. I think it also helps you stay grounded and deal better with the pressures and stresses in your own life. Volunteering has not only changed my outlook on life but has made me much better at my job as well. Pilotlight made me realise that after 20 years in the business world I have a lot of skills to offer. It has definitely increased my self-confidence”.

The idea that this sort of volunteering not only benefits the charity – giving them access to business acumen they could never afford – but also reinforces people’s confidence and self-belief is one that is echoed by Elaine Maddison: “I’ve just stepped up to a new senior role at work and I think Pilotlight really helped because it made me realise that I have skills that I can use in different situations. In many ways it has made me more confident of stepping outside my comfort zone and taking on a new challenge.”