The Reading Agency’s c.e.o. Sue Wilkinson will retire in July 2019, it has been announced, following a five-year stint of leading the literacy charity.
Since taking on the job in January 2014, she has seen £2m awarded to the Big Lottery Fund for Reading Friends, a UK-wide programme that tackles loneliness through reading as well as a new partnership with the Welsh Government to deliver Reading Well in Wales and "an extraordinary gift" of three years of funding for the Quick Reads initiative for emerging adult readers from bestselling author Jojo Moyes in May, an agency spokesperson said. The donation followed The Bookseller’s report the previous month that the scheme was threatened with closure due to a funding shortfall.
"I always thought I would retire when I reached 60 and this year I’m turning 60," she told The Bookseller from her office in the Free Word Centre, in London's Farringdon. "I think it is hugely attractive job. It has been an amazing organisation to lead."
Wilkinson said she had discussed with the chair and vice chair of the agency the best time to go, and it was decided July would fit in best with the new c.e.o. handling the next round of Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funding. The Agency will work with a headhunter to recruit her successor.
Despite a restructure on the staff side, new trustees, and a refreshed set of mission and values, Wilkinson is leaving the staff headcount of almost 30 at around the same as when she left.
However the cash donation from Moyes last year to save the adult literacy scheme Quick Reads means the charity can bolster its adult reading offering. Wilkinson said: "We are recruiting for a number of jobs, including the head of adult reading and an assistant, a newly created role, as well as a head of publisher partnerships."
On Quick Reads, she added: "I think it is at an amazing place. It was such a generous gift of Jojo’s. It means we can now embed it into our adult programme and it is not just commissioning. Quick Reads is becoming part of our adult offering, rather than being a separate scheme as it was before… It will be about embedding our programmes in an audience-focused way, and is about co-creation. We spend a lot of time saying ‘if we want children to read they need to see the adults in their lives reading and enjoying reading'.”
Over the future of the agency, Wilkinson said it would be for her successor to decide but that she would be keen to see more from the agency’s collaboration with Demos, and its three priorities, and said the next step could be to identify other priority areas around this work. The thinktank's report for the Reading Agency was published in November, urging for government intervention to tackle the "loneliness epidemic" through "Book Relief". In 2019 they will work with an external research partner to undertake a large-scale impact evaluation of the Summer Reading Challenge, funded by Arts Council England."
Matthew Littleford, the charity’s chair, said he will be appointing a consultancy to recruit a new chief executive. He said: “Thanks to Sue’s commitment and strong leadership The Reading Agency has achieved fantastic things during the last five years: she has generated new strategic partnerships, raised our profile, and ensured we are in a financially sustainable position. I would like to say thank you on behalf of the board for everything she has achieved and look forward to recruiting a successor who can build on her accomplishments."
"Wilkinson has also prioritised evaluation of the impact of reading programmes,” a spokesperson for the charity said. "Between 2014 and 2017 The Reading Agency led an innovative, collaborative project, funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation, to produce a reading outcomes framework for use across the sector.
On her retirement, Wilkinson revealed she will not turn entirely away from books. She will “read all the books which have landed on my desk over the last five years” and continue to be a trustee of the Historic Royal Palaces. “I’m looking forward to having lots of time to read and also hope to do some mentoring,” she said.