Getting to Know… Kathryn Pretzel-Shiels

For many years, Kathryn has been an active supporter of medical charities researching bowel cancer and bowel disease in the UK and in the US, where she originated from. Kathryn is a Bowel Research UK trustee and chairs our Fundraising, Marketing & Communications Committee.

When did you first get involved in the work of the charity and what led you to volunteer?

I first became involved in 2016 when a friend introduced me to Deborah Gilbert, CEO of Bowel & Cancer Research, one of the two charities which merged in late 2020 to become Bowel Research UK.

Deborah and I discussed my personal experience of bowel diseases, having lost my fiancéé at the age of 29 to bowel cancer.  I was curious to know more about the work of the charity and considered how I might be able to help get involved.  I was raised to be an active supporter of charities and charitable causes in the US, so as an adult I continued this course.  I became involved with Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, one of the top cancer research institutions in the world, after my fiancé died, which felt like a very natural thing to do.  I enjoyed meeting with patients and their families every week, making their stays as comfortable as possible.  The Sloan Kettering Institute, world-renowned for its medical research and education work, continue to train future generations of research scientists. 

After learning more from Deborah I reached out to my network to see if I could help with some raffle prizes needed for a fundraising event approaching quickly.  Due to the generosity of the CEO at City Academy, we managed to bring in vouchers to help raise additional funds that night.  From that point on, I became a member of the Fundraising Committee for Bowel and Cancer Research and worked to help the charity raise its brand awareness and boost its fundraising. 

Subsequently, I met the Chair of the charity, Paul Reynolds (Co-chair of Bowel Research UK) and his dedication and support of the charity was captivating and inspiring.  I was later invited to join the Board of Trustees, which I was thrilled to accept while retaining my role on the Fundraising Committee.  Within 12 months or so, I was invited to Chair the Fundraising Committee which has now grown to include Fundraising, Marketing & Communications which I continue to do for the new charity following the merger.  

It’s long been my motto that you don’t choose your causes, the causes choose you. There are so many worthy causes that deserve our attention and money, but for me personally, I have chosen to focus on the causes where I can make the most difference. For me, medical research for better bowel health is one of those causes, along with supporting the next generation of women leaders, championing equality, preserving our connection with nature and helping communities to thrive.

What are the main responsibilities of chairing the Fundraising, Marketing & Communications Committee, and what are the biggest challenges of being a charity trustee?

The committee’s overall responsibility is to help raise funds to enable the Grants Committee to support early-career PhD candidates and scientists to conduct life-changing research to end bowel cancer and end bowel disease.  We do this by reviewing and contributing to the strategy and activities to raise funds through Major Donors, Grants & Trusts, Corporate partnerships, legacies and through individual donors, events and donations.  

Secondly, I’m accountable for attracting and leveraging members of the committee to help us meet the needs of the staff and the Board of Trustees.  Last year, we completed a skills audit to ensure we are helping the staff by providing ‘in-house’’support and advice across all fundraising, marketing and communications activities.  Committees comprising trustees and volunteers need to continually evolve and grow in order to anticipate and react to new opportunities and changing times, so refreshing membership is a vital function. 

My third area of responsibility is representing the committee to the Board of Trustees, and other essential committees, such as the Grants and Finance committees. Through my role as Chair, we assist the board with our counsel and influence decisions on the strategy, priorities, and resources regarding the brand, fundraising and marketing. I also support the work of the other committees, bringing a fundraising and marketing lens to topics such as the research strategy, grants or trust funding applications, or being part of the thinking on how best to approach a major new donor. 

Covid has been a massive event for all charities in different ways, how has it affected your fundraising efforts and ability to network with contacts?

The timing of Covid had an impact because we were merging two charities at the same time. We were making important decisions on branding and positioning, and priorities and helping our new CEO settle into her new role without being able to bring everyone together in person. We were in the early stages of blending our new board made up of trustees from the two existing charities. Since we were unable to meet in person, like many others in this situation we migrated to online conferencing which was more difficult in some ways, but easier in others.   

To sum it up, in many ways it was the perfect storm: a new brand, a new team, a new CEO and Covid all at the same time. It also meant our plans to fundraise alongside the launch of the new charity had to be reconsidered so we needed to be nimble and not rely originally on planned activity. 

Covid led to all our usual event fundraising through large cycling and running fundraising events being cancelled, although our wonderful supporters found imaginative ways to help us by organizing their own remote activities through virtual runs & rides.  Some of the grants and trusts were also having to find new ways of working so the process of dealing with them was slower than normal. But again, we adapted as well as we could to work with them.   

While we couldn’t rely on the ‘tried and true’ approach – it forced us to think differently and leverage others’ ways of communicating our story and attracting new audiences – improving our social media, developing our legacy strategy and activities, connecting with supporters individually and exploring other partnerships. It was encouraging that our ability to keep an active dialogue with our supporters, researchers, and patient volunteers worked and we have our dedicated staff members to thank for that. 

Our work on gut health and general wellbeing was an important part of our Covid response. Because some bowel cancer screening services had to be delayed during the pandemic, we increased our messaging on the importance of symptom recognition of bowel cancer and encouraged people to consult with their GP if they felt they might be at risk. We worked to eliminate the ‘Poo Taboo’ by helping normalize these conversations. 

Do you volunteer for other charities?

I am on the Board of the UK Chapter of the International Women’s Forum which is an invitation only, not-for-profit group of accomplished women from across all sectors, who have a shared mission of advancing women’s leadership and championing equality worldwide. I led our Programme Committee for six years and currently am developing our strategy for Future Leaders.

I also lead a Strategic Imperative on Partnership, Programmes and Marketing on behalf of Golden Leaf of London, a charity whose mission is to heal our connection with nature and helping communities to thrive.  The purpose is to connect local communities to reimagine, establish and sustain the sense of balance between the City and nature and improve life for us all now and for generations to come.

In closing, the work of the charity is never complete and BRUK continues to evolve as we invest in impact change to improve people’s lives.  We will continue to do this by embracing diversity and inclusion and creating opportunities for staff and volunteers to broaden and deepen their learning and contributions.  These are priorities on my to-do list, and I look forward to focusing on them in the near future.