Claire Cullens: Making Norfolk the best it can be

Norfolk Community Foundation chief executive Claire Cullens. Picture: Danielle Booden

Norfolk Community Foundation chief executive Claire Cullens - Credit: Danielle Booden

For Claire Cullens, the decision to leave Norfolk as a teenager in the 1980s to “experience something different” was deliberate and considered. 

It took her first to study politics at Newcastle University before embarking on a career with food and confectionary company Mars, with ‘postings’ to Tokyo and Moscow and the changing business landscape of the eastern bloc as the Iron Curtain came down. 

The choice to return, to take up a role with Norfolk Community Foundation following a global career in business development, was equally deliberate. 

With it, she brings a wealth of experience of working with different cultures, environments and outlooks, as well as an ingrained love of Norfolk. 

Now 55, Claire feels she has found her perfect job. Indeed, when the role came up, a friend contacted her to suggest it had “her name written all over it.” 

Yet she also acknowledges it as “the most challenging” job she has ever had. 

Tackling big issues 

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As chief executive of Norfolk Community Foundation (NCF) - an independent local charity providing funding and support to ensure other voluntary groups can provide essential care - Claire leads the team that delivers support to Norfolk charities, engages with local people and national and major local partners who want to give, and offers communities a platform and voice. 

“We do that through working alongside our local charities and community organisations which are tackling the big issues of our day – around food insecurity, debt and mental health – and organisations that are running young people’s activities. 

“Our job is to help them get funding and support, and partner with each other so that together we make sure that Norfolk is as good as it can be.” 

Deep-rooted challenges 

Few challenges have been as hard as those thrown up by Covid-19, but it is those most in need in the community who have been worst affected. 

“Covid-19 has not shown us anything we don’t know,” she says, as I ask her about depth of the challenges facing NCF. 

She points to deep-rooted issues of poverty, mental health, safety for women, families struggling to cope, and isolation within the county, but adds: “None of that is new; Covid just took the lid off and exposed it to everybody.” 

Yet what it has also done is amplify and underline the need for support, giving, and working together, to make Norfolk a better place. 

She points to the NCF’s Covid response as a high point. During the early phases of the pandemic and lockdown, as efforts turned to making sure community groups received prompt support, initial funding for up to £1,000 was delivered to organisations. But as it became clear that groups and charities needed more, the offer evolved. 

“In those early weeks, we kept our communities safe while we waited for more structured support from our local authorities to kick in,” she explains. 

“But through our Covid activity, we inspired so many people to engage with their local community and actually doubled the number of people who had given to the foundation in one single year.” 

Sense of order 

Her business development background, which saw her spearhead Mars’ drinks business activity in Tokyo and establish the sales business across Russia, armed Claire with the tools to offer a new dimension to meeting these challenges. 

After her A-levels at Norwich High School she headed off to university, where she developed a particular interest in East Asian politics and Japanese. 

That offered the opportunity to study at a university on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, and contrasted starkly with her home life in rural Brundall. 

“With relatively few westerners living in Japan in the 80s, and certainly not many women, living and working there during this time could be isolating - a difficult language to conquer, a culture steeped in tradition and yet a business environment able to innovate and change at a remarkable pace,” she recalls. 

“I found the Japanese sense of order and process at times quite stifling and yet strangely this was something I really missed after I had left. The Japanese have a really strong sense of community and pride in their institutions and place. It seems ingrained in the very psyche and I often wish we shared more of that back home.” 

Claire Cullens, chief executive of Friend of Norfolk Community Foundation, speaks at the launch of '

Claire Cullens speaking at the launch of 'Thetford Shines Brighter', a project by Friend of Norfolk Community Foundation and the EDP to put funding into Thetford - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

Emerging markets 

Having joined Mars as a graduate trainee working in emerging markets, Claire honed the skills of how to develop a business and work with local partners. She returned to Japan, and then later, to Moscow. 

“Living in Moscow in the 90s was as chaotic as Japan was ordered,” she continues. “I loved the Russian sense of humour and desire to live in the moment because you never know what tomorrow might bring.” 

Within those roles, she learned the importance of not attempting to superimpose a large business model on a new developing organisation. 

“You understand what they want to do and you help support and drive infrastructure to develop that, you never try and force fit. 

“I think this is really important for the role that I have today,” says Claire. “With the foundation we are not trying to make anyone do anything, we are trying to help them realise their ambition and that early corporate background has given me that framework. 

“Ultimately, you have to trust the business or the organisation because they know what they are trying to do; our job is to try and help facilitate and grow it.” 

Mentoring trainees 

Later, she moved into graduate recruitment at Mars, mentoring trainees and developing young people, and began the journey that brought her back home to Norfolk. 

As her own family came along, her career focus shifted further towards people development and career guidance, helping individuals return to work and supporting young people, including mentoring for the Princes Trust, before the NCF opportunity arose. 

“I looked at what the Norfolk Community Foundation did and thought this is a way of bringing together my real interest in people – especially young people – and helping them achieve what is possible. 

“I certainly believe that we all have the capacity to do well, what we need is the support. If in some way I can be part of an organisation that did that, and was able to use my business skills to help enable that, then isn’t that the Holy Grail?” 

While acknowledging the challenges, she says: “I feel one of the luckiest people ever to do the job that I do, to find that sweet spot of life experience and work experience come together and be able to physically see what difference you are making.” 

Claire Cullens, left, chief executive, and Jenny Bevan, head of programmes Norfolk Community Foundat

Claire Cullens and Jenny Bevan at a previous launch of the Surviving Winter campaign - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Supporting organisations 

Claire takes very personally the challenge of supporting Norfolk’s community organisations. 

“These are incredible organisations, often led by people that have experience in one of those areas themselves, who have set up a charity and want to do something, but they need someone alongside them on funding.

“I feel an enormous responsibility to get them that funding so they can focus on getting the job done. I am never going to have enough funding to do what is needed, but I can do the best I can.” 

Last year, the foundation delivered a record of more than £4m of support to local charities. 

In addition to the Covid response, another standout was the pre-Christmas Household Support Fund, run on behalf of Norfolk County Council. 

Working with local charities and groups, support and food vouchers were given to vulnerable families/households who were struggling through winter. 

“In just over two weeks, we distributed 11,000 vouchers to local Norfolk families. The feedback that we had about their overwhelming gratitude and the difference that relatively modest sum of funding had made to a family to enable them to contemplate having a Christmas absolutely keeps you connected and rooted with what you are doing.” 

Working with business 

NCF funding and support comes from various sources to be passed on to those organisations in the county that need it, as well as engaging other organisations to support the NCF work. 

An example is the Nourishing Norfolk programme, about tackling food insecurity and setting up food hubs that give people access to regular supplies of affordable food. 

This sees NCF working with national organisations, farmers and local authorities on schemes to offer food to those who need it at 70 per cent of normal retail prices. 

It also works with local businesses to help them give time and professional expertise to local charities, such as marketing or IT. 

“We set up initiatives to respond to the issues of our time, but one of the things I have focused on as chief executive is the idea that giving is not something only the wealthy can do; we can all do it, with time and funding.” 

Future plans 

The future plan is to continue to engage more people in giving, “in any sense that makes sense to them” and “inspiring people to want to get involved.” 

Further projects are around food access and mental health for young people, working with former North Norfolk MP and health minister Norman Lamb, to bring a coalition of youth charities together to tackle the issue. 

Underpinning these plans are the NCF values - about caring, supporting, integrity, trusting organisations, and not shying away from tackling the difficult questions. 

“It is about being bold and taking the difficult decisions and not saying what we have now is enough, because it isn’t.” 

Net zero 

Another factor is care for the environment, heading towards net zero and leading by example, following COP26 with a paperless office and encouraging recycling. 

“That is hugely important,” she adds. “Within all of our grant programmes, we are starting to look at the environmental case. With food security, if we can get local people delivering food to local need, we are reducing miles travelled, so it is a lens in which we look at our work, working with organisations to think about being more sustainable.” 

Claire also acknowledges the support of her “amazing team”, the board of trustees, patrons Lord-Lieutenant Lady Dannatt and Bishop Graham, chair Henry Cator, and an extended network including several leading figures in the county. 

She also chairs the New Anglia LEP Skills Advisory Panel, a forum bringing together business, education and skills leaders across Norfolk and Suffolk to develop local talent and support people to reach their potential. 

Claire Cullens and her husband on holiday

Claire and her husband on holiday - Credit: Contributed

Claire Cullens and her family

Claire and her family - Credit: Contributed

Figment of imagination 

Claire lives in Norwich with husband Graham Mackintosh, her rock and confidante, who she married three years ago. Both from Norfolk, they first dated at university in their early 20s, and then reconnected later on in life. 

She has a son Harry (21) who is in his final year at York University and daughter Sophie (23), doing her final law exams; and three stepsons, Matt (24), doing a PhD at Birmingham University, John (21), currently on gap year and Robert (17) who is studying for his A-levels. 

“It is so exciting to see them develop in their lives and join them on their journey, and finding the time to be with them individually as well as collectively.” 

It was after having her own family that she looked to return and remind herself of “all the wonderful things that Norfolk has to offer.” 

“I thought this is the place where I want to bring my family up, I want them to feel that this is home because I love Norfolk,” explains Claire. “I moved away deliberately but also very deliberately moved back.” 

A new focus for the family is a one-year-old black Labrador puppy, Figgy. 

“We take her on walks to explore different parts of Norfolk as well as the coast, which I love,” explains Claire, who also enjoys the gym and running. “She is called Figgy because after our last lovely lab died, our daughter was desperate for us to get another one. 

“My husband said ‘a new dog Sophie, is going to be a figment of your imagination’. So, ‘figment’ duly arrived and became known as Figgy.” 

I'm reading – Scaling Up by Verne Harnish, about how you scale a business at pace. I am looking at that because I am thinking about how we scale up our food operation. I am always interested in learning from different sectors. 

I'm watching – One of the most interesting programmes I have watched in a long time was the recent documentary series, Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution - insightful, interesting and pertinent today in terms of leadership style. 

I'm listening to -  Radio 4 with the Rev Richard Coles on a Saturday morning, with interviews with the most fascinating people, such as Julian Clary.