As Finance Director at the youth charity and social enterprise Brathay Trust in Cumbria, KPMG alumna Heather Dixon certainly believes she has found her place in the world.

Her path as an accountant was also an unusual one. Starting a traineeship at a medium sized firm Armitage and Norton in Leeds in the mid 1980s, moving to KPMG in York just as the firm was acquired by KPMG, she found herself completing her accountancy qualification at one of the present day Big Four. She moved to KPMG in Leeds in the Audit department – but after around eighteen months, the yearning to return to her native Cumbria was growing ever stronger.

I was happy at KPMG but I needed mountains and open space!” Heather reflects. “My husband was also from Cumbria and we decided to make the move back.

There was no KPMG office in or near the Lake District, but Heather managed to find a position with RF Miller & Co based in Barrow-in-Furness – a small firm but one that boasted a number of significant corporate clients alongside plentiful private client work. Starting as an audit manager, just 18 months later Heather became a Partner. She was in fact the first female partner in Barrow-in-Furness, a fact that was reported on in the local news.

Becoming a Partner was what I had set out to do so it was obviously fantastic to be able to achieve that and at quite a young age. It was rewarding and enjoyable – as a Partner, I took on a much wider range of work and experience. There were only three Partners in the firm – we were running our own business.

It was after nearly 15 years at RF Miller & Co that Heather began to really reflect on her career and her life wishes. The sense was growing that she wanted to change direction and do something new. 

At the time, my children were at primary school – the same one in fact that I went to as a child – and I began to think more and more about young people, social differences, life chances. Children really are our future, and I realised that I wanted to be part of an organisation that was dedicated to supporting them – even if that meant earning less than I could in the corporate sphere.

Having been quite open with her fellow partners about her intention to leave RF Miller & Co, she allowed plenty of time for an orderly exit. She then worked for a few years at the Audit Commission “fascinating work that gave me insights into the public sector, a world I wasn’t very familiar with” while at the same time taking up a governorship position at one of the largest primary schools in Cumbria, later becoming chair of governors.

It was in 2010 that the position ‘with her name on it’ came up at Brathay Trust. Originally founded in 1946, and based in a beautiful 18th century hall at the head of Lake Windermere, the Trust is a social enterprise whose mission is to improve the life chances of children, young people and families.

As Heather explains:

Everything we do exists for one reason and one reason alone – to provide funds to enable us to run residential and community-based programmes for thousands of vulnerable young people every year. Last year alone, we delivered life-changing programmes to 7,000 youngsters and families from economically-deprived areas across England. We work with children and young people of all ages, many of them ‘victims’ of circumstance, be it crime or abuse; battling with addiction or mental health; making the difficult transition from a life in care, or facing complex family issues.

As with charities up and down the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the Trust with significant challenges. It has meant the virtual closure of the hall for most of the period since the first lockdown last March. But the Trust has shown nimbleness and agility, developing its digital channels, running programmes online, and holding what events it can in line with COVID-19 safety guidelines.

It’s been tough, but we’ve been able to reshape and continue, thinking outside the box and finding ways to make things work. There is always much more uncertainty in the charitable sector, in a way we’re used to it. We’re so grateful to all our supporters and donors. I do desperately miss the site though!

And what would Heather’s advice be to any other alumni who are thinking about making a move into the third sector? 

Do it! But don’t expect it to be easy, and make sure it’s something you really want to do. Ultimately, you need to be true to yourself. That’s what I did, and I haven’t regretted it for one minute. In some ways, the job here is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s also the most rewarding. It’s become a passion for me – the combination of financial management with an environment that’s all about helping young people – and I can’t see myself ever going anywhere else.