Amanda Wilkinson

amanda wilkinson

It was a privilege to talk to Amanda Wilkinson, CEO of Motivation, an international charity and social enterprise that works across Africa and South Asia to help secure disabled people’s right to dignity, autonomy and inclusion. 

Amanda is full of drive and energy, but very humble, “I headed up the fundraising at Childline in its earlier days, it was a beautiful gift, having such a wonderful brand and understandable cause. As a fundraiser that helped me develop my career, my skills and my management.”

This humility comes out in her leadership style; she has a rare focus of making both her role and her organisation unnecessary. “You should always be thinking about your exit, leaving behind something that can carry on without you”

Because of Covid, the last few years have been tough for the sector and many organisations have failed. It created serious challenges for Motivation, with huge drops in funding, but through her resilience and the fantastic team she has built, chosen because they share the organisation’s values, “and those values run deep”, they have come through that exceedingly tough time with high hopes for the years ahead.


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? 

Humankind by Rutger Bregman. This is a book for anyone who has had the shine of optimism of human nature taken away from them. It’s easy to buy into the narrative that we are inherently selfish, but this book shows us the evidence that that isn’t true and it’s just a story we’re told (over and over again). 

One example in it is a real life version of Lord of the Flies, and rather than killing each other, the children created an egalitarian society and looked after one another.

Everyone should read this book.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

Workwise, it would be to spend a hundred pounds on the team for time out, you know, either biscuits or social to say, thanks. It may not seem like it, but that is a truly valuable thing to spend money on.

Personally, it would be my audible membership. I have a new dog, and I listen to books whilst walking her.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

Relationships at work that haven’t worked out, and how that changed my  leadership in the future. There had been occasions where I was working at an organisation and the relationship I had with my boss wasn’t good. No matter what we did to try to understand a conflict from both sides, it was clear that that relationship could never work. That meant on those occasions, I had to leave, which is arguably a failure. 

When I took over the CEO role in my current job, there were some people that were already in post that couldn’t accept my leadership style. This was challenging, but my experience early on had led me to realise that if I had tried hard to make it work, but it still didn’t, the only answer was that we probably needed to part and that though it’s tough in the short term, it truly is better for everybody. 


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

1 in 6 people lives with a disability. And yet so much of our communities, our products, and services are inaccessible to disabled people. Let’s demand more from our leaders and ourselves to make sure no one is left behind. We are all better off when everyone is included. 


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Spending time on my personal development and timetabling thinking time.

I’ve been involved in an online Bristol-based company that provides a forum for leaders to ask questions, pre-meetings in the morning. It’s the chance to think about something new or a challenge from a different perspective, which sometimes I can bring into my current role. It provides inspiration and often some new leadership tools.


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I enjoy humour in the office. It creates a more informal, authentic environment. 

Sometimes we’ll combine serious topics of discussion or management information sessions with something more light-hearted in the same all staff meeting. It often makes team meetings more comfortable for everyone but also provides a better basis for learning and sharing important information. I believe that bringing laughter into a meeting, especially during a crisis, helps because finding humour and laughing at difficult things is very human and helps us all keep perspective.


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

Walking my dog provides space to breathe in and appreciate the timelessness of the nature around you. 

Also, the discipline of having to do it every day means you have to take a break, in all weathers. 


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?”

“It too shall pass.” Whatever you are stressed about, try to put some boundaries around it – is this a worry for now and how long will you remember it? 

I also think success is too often measured in earnings or power. As you get older I think you realise that being comfortable and fulfilled becomes much more important, so better to visualise where and how you think this might be and make this place your goal. 


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

That outdated fundraising images depicting need are the most lucrative in fundraising. 

For a long time international development organisations used disempowering or ‘pity’ marketing in their fundraising to depict their programme participants because they thought that donors wouldn’t respond so generously to more egalitarian depictions of participants with agency. This dated approach not only underestimates donors but perpetuates an outdated and exclusive view of aid.   


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

The lack of coordination and collaboration in international development means organisations look to implement projects without adequate global research or scoping out of the current context. This often leads to inefficiencies which ultimately undermines the sector and limits the impact that could otherwise be made. 

It’s also frustrating that some organisations in the international development space are still discussing localisation as an option, when the discussion should have shifted to if and why to how and when.  


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips? 

As an organisation I think we have become better at saying no to partners and sometimes funding which doesn’t fully align with our values or objectives. We have a set of principles for partnership which articulate what positive partnerships look like and assist with our internal decision-making. 


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has a work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

Balancing work and family is a constant juggle for everyone who is lucky enough to feel passionate about the work they do. But important family priorities always come first for me and this is an ethos that we practise as an employer. As a result at Motivation, we try to be as flexible as we can and know this is valued by the team. 


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

Where anxieties about work or the business do weigh heavily, it helps me to  ask myself, is there anything more I could be doing to manage a situation better? And another, what story will you tell in the future of your role in the situation? 

This helps to defuse the fogginess and the anxiety, either by helping me to renavigate my chosen course or double down on my plan of action. 

Then I’ve learnt to check in with my senior team since they might be feeling similar stresses. 


What does leadership mean to you?

My leadership style is that I’m replaceable. The real work is done by the organisation, by the team. My role is to do the very best that I can, by being humble, leading by example, being prepared to do a bit of everything that’s needed, but mostly finding people who agree with our mission, uphold our values and that are good enough that I’m not necessary.

Also, sometimes when I have an off day, being a leader is taking responsibility and showing up and being fully present and positive. 


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why?

At Childline, I had a senior manager from BT as a mentor.  He had real curiosity for the world. He was very astute. He loved listening to people, 

He told me he would try and do something different every day. He was almost retired at this point, but still did the most ridiculous things just to meet his daily goal. This gave him a real playfulness and a joie de vivre that I aspire to have. When I’m stuck, I sometimes think, what would he do?

I’m continually inspired by our peer-to-peer wheelchair mentors who continue to instil self worth and ambition in fellow wheelchair users as part of our peer mentor training. Through their training with others they galvanise the ability for people with disabilities to be independent and to have freedom and make choices. 


What do the words principles and values mean to you? 

The answer to the question, “What is the right thing to do?”

In any decision-making or times of adversity, I always go back to the organisation’s values. We review them regularly, making sure that they are meaningful to staff wherever they are in our global team. 

We also recruit using questions about our values and discussing, what is important to people, finding out if they share our values and why?

Honesty is one of our core values. Our organisational integrity underpins everything we do and determines how and what we communicate to all our stakeholders. It’s hard sometimes to communicate honestly to people, and honesty is sometimes hard to hear, but if delivered sensitively, it usually is the best course of action and delivers ultimately the best outcome.  

We’ve recently changed one of our values from innovation to inventiveness, innovation didn’t quite capture what we wanted to articulate about ourselves. We have to be creative across all areas of our work in order to achieve our goals and sometimes with constrained resources and we felt this ingenuity was better reflected in ‘inventiveness’.

Empowerment is another core value and determines how we work and interact with each other, our partners and our participants. 

Finally, inclusion reflects our vision of a better world and drives our ambition for disabled people. 


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

Is the lasting impression you leave your team after a meeting, going to lift their motivation and performance? 


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

Daily cardio and an hour free of meetings for thinking time. 


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

Yes coaching – always been helpful in times of change or career growth.

Topic: 50 in 50