By Brian Carr – Chief Executive of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council
I awoke yesterday to the sad news that Jane Slowey, my ex-boss and predecessor as chief executive of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council, had passed away. Although I gathered that she had been dealing with ill health in recent months, it still came as a shock. As a colleague in the voluntary sector commented, you somehow just don’t think it will happen – particularly to someone as vibrant and lively as Jane.
That she was held in high esteem throughout our sector is without question. The outpouring of love, affection and respect on social media yesterday is testament to that. It is clear that she was a mentor and role model for many, and an inspiration to many more.
I owe her a particular debt of gratitude. When she left BVSC in 2004 to take up her new post as chief executive of the Foyer Federation, she invited me to act up into the role of chief executive at BVSC. With her encouragement, I subsequently applied for and secured the permanent post. I’m still here twelve years later, in what is something of a dream job within a hugely exciting and forward-looking organisation – so I’m particularly aware of her influence.
Jane was unfailingly encouraging. She openly invited fresh ideas, and created the space for her staff to explore and realise those ideas. When I first joined BVSC – as a unit manager of BVSC’s Volunteer Centre – I was immediately struck by the fact that it was an organisation that embraced innovation, championed inclusivity, encouraged initiative, and celebrated talent. I arrived somewhat bruised from a difficult experience within an environment that represented the very opposites of those qualities, and I really felt the contrast.
That much of this organisational excellence was as a result of Jane’s leadership was clear to me. Where others would throw up barriers and blocks, she would build bridges and pave new pathways towards a better, more constructive future. She mentored me and pushed me; encouraged me and challenged me – and she modelled the type of inspirational, generous leadership I continue to aspire to today. I think it’s her generosity that I’ll remember most of all. She always had time for the people she worked with, and for the people she worked to help. I learned my most valuable leadership lessons from her – mainly about seeing the biggest possible picture whilst remembering what it’s all really about: the welfare and improved prospects of the people we’re here to serve.
Others at BVSC have similarly positive memories. I asked my PA, Michele Saul – who worked for Jane in a number of different roles within the organisation – what her own abiding memory would be. She didn’t hesitate. It is, she says, of Jane, “sitting in a hospital bed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, writing up BVSC’s SRB4 bid. I spent many an hour commuting between BVSC and the QE collecting and delivering floppy disks!”. This is a reference to the time when, in the midst of treatment for her first bout with cancer in the late 90s, Jane constructed the bid that would bring over £7m of Single Regeneration Budget funding directly into Birmingham’s community and voluntary sector – at a time when such investment in the sector’s infrastructure was highly unusual. This was fairly typical of Jane’s abilities both to multitask, and to put the needs of others above her own.
BVSC’s chair, Jonathan Driffill, has his own memories of this time. He says, “Jane is the reason I am so involved with BVSC. It was her drive and vision that saw BVSC successfully bid for and deliver the first voluntary sector led SRB4 programme in Birmingham CAN! Jane encouraged me to get involved when I was new to the sector in Birmingham and the rest as they say is history. It was her passion and inspiration that was so important and what will be so sadly missed.”
She was fiercely passionate about equality – particularly for women – and about encouraging a new generation of sector leaders. BVSC’s deputy chief executive, Jasbir Rai says, “She helped me to realise my potential – potential that she spotted before I did! She pushed me to apply for a director’s role at BVSC, and her belief in me helped me to take the chance.”
In addition to SRB4, Jane was at the forefront of a number of significant BVSC-led local community development initiatives including New Deal for Communities, a European Social Fund programme, and the creation of such landmark voluntary sector organisations as Birmingham Race Action Partnership and Regional Action West Midlands. RAWM’s first chief executive, Chris Bonnard, emailed me to say, “What I will remember and continue to take strength from is Jane’s sense of values, her belief in and support of the talents of young people, a passionate commitment to gender and race equality and to social justice”.
She made a contribution nationally too, working as chair of Skills Third Sector and Vice Chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) for six years. She was, of course, active in other fields – local politics and the youth sector to name but two. There are others better qualified than I to reflect on the trails she undoubtedly blazed – in her own gentle yet resolute way – in those areas.
She leaves such a positive legacy in our sector, and in Birmingham as a whole. We feel her legacy every day here at BVSC. Although I have, naturally, made changes within the organisation during my time at the helm, there are several elements of BVSC’s culture which I have left well enough alone – simply because, under Jane’s leadership, they were built on firm foundations. After all: when something isn’t broken, and when it has been built with such skill, love, and generosity of spirit – why fix it?
RIP Jane. You’ll be missed – and fondly remembered.