Alison Moore of Comic Relief US: “As a leader, you’re often seen as the common denominator”

As a leader, you’re often seen as the common denominator; the North Star through which people are going to look for consistent communication, for clear direction and support, and as much transparency as possible. I do think the bar is raised a bit higher for women leaders versus men. I think it is expected that […]

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As a leader, you’re often seen as the common denominator; the North Star through which people are going to look for consistent communication, for clear direction and support, and as much transparency as possible. I do think the bar is raised a bit higher for women leaders versus men. I think it is expected that you will be an advocate for your team, and a mentor for them, cultivating your relationships and building a strong trust level. I also think many (not all!) women have this incredible superpower of communicating effectively, while leading with empathy and grace — all of which has become more important than ever, particularly as we’re all navigating this COVID crisis together.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Moore. Alison Moore is the CEO of Comic Relief US, an American nonprofit using the power of entertainment and engagement to drive positive change towards their vision of a just world, free from poverty, and is the organization behind Red Nose Day.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you for having me.

Honestly, I had no inclination at all of going into the media business. I graduated from college with a degree in political science, with the intention of getting a job on Capitol Hill. But it was 1992, we were in a recession and for many reasons, it just wasn’t coming to fruition.

Taking some advice from my father, I started to interview everywhere and talk with everyone I knew. Through a friend, I managed to land an entry job at Turner in Atlanta. I had no real idea how the media and entertainment industry worked, so the first few months were a bit nerve-wracking. I worked hard to learn the machine and work my way up, which laid the ground for my career in media at HBO, NBC, SoundCloud and CondeNast and is also tied to what ultimately led me to Comic Relief US.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As is true for so many people, leading the organization through COVID has been a big challenge and a lesson on patience and perseverance.

I joined the organization in the Fall of 2019. By February 2020 we were planning for my first Red Nose Day campaign, kicking off that April, and had just presented my new five-year plan and strategy to the Board. We had the green light for both the campaign and the expanded plan, and we were ready to kick things off in the weeks following. However, by March 18th we were in quarantine and everything had to pivot fast.

Part of that pivot meant re-imagining Red Nose Day itself. With an unknown respiratory virus on the rise, we with Walgreens, decided it was unwise to sell a physical red nose in stores as our primary fundraising tactic, and for the first time, we collectively decided to create a digital red nose to drive income. Red Nose Day has always had an online component but this was the first time we had ever tied a digital nose to donation and had to work out a plan for digital scale and also a place to create a digital consumer experience for frictionless donation. Working with the fantastic team at Walgreens, in a matter of weeks, we had to really re-invent Red Nose Day for the new reality we were living in.

That was stressful for all of the teams involved, of course, but the real wake-up call was seeing what was happening to our grantee partners and the communities that we serve together. The nonprofit partners that we support with Red Nose Day were facing unprecedented cost increases, as they tried to keep up with the deep need. At the same time, they also had an incredible hit to income, as some of their traditional fundraising activities vanished overnight. Non-profits are amazingly resilient organizations, but this was unbelievably taxing. These economic stresses combined with COVID-19’s impact on the most vulnerable populations, including children, created a perfect storm for many nonprofits: a rising demand for frontline services while they faced their own stretched cost and income pressures. From our end, it just strengthened our resolve to raise as much money for Red Nose Day as we could, in the campaign and across the year, to continue to support our grantee partners in their crucial and impactful work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This will certainly age me but here goes. As I mentioned earlier, I had no intention of working in “business”. So, when I was completing my last college courses, I didn’t train or think about what was needed in a functioning office. I was going to help write congressional articles! Fast forward to my first job at Turner, noting this was at the entry-level, and my boss asked me to fax something for her. I realized I had no idea how to fax anything, or even where the fax machine was. Naturally, I told her of course I would fax it, and instead of asking for help from anyone, I went over to the fax machine and hung out near it learn, watching people use it for about an hour. I am certain some folks in the office thought I was a stalker — but I figured it out! Fax sent.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have a powerhouse group of women who I was lucky to work with and have had my back for a long time. I am still very close with all of them today, as we have all moved to different chapters of our careers. We support each other as friends, executives, mothers, and daughters. They are multi-faceted friendships and I am so very grateful for that pillar of support.

But if I had to identify one particular person who has always been a support, it would be my father. He always imparted to me, his only girl, that he had infinite belief in me. He wasn’t always able to verbally communicate it, but he showed it to me all my life with his actions. His immeasurable support has been the foundation for any success that I have had — because no matter what I went through, he was always my touchstone.

He encouraged me to believe in myself, saying: “You have to chart your own course. Don’t ever burn bridges but keep your eye on the path.” That wisdom has stuck with me throughout my life and most certainly my career.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I really try to embrace a semi-calm and authentic presence in the face of chaos and exhaustion.

Especially now as we’re working from home and experiencing Zoom-fatigue and longer screen times, it’s important for leaders to be honest about the challenges, while at the same time encourage the team to take a breath, reflect, and try to take the time needed to recharge. It is, as they say, a marathon, not a sprint, but it is hard for folks to remember that in these trying times — so you have to lead by example when you can.

For me, it’s good to shut down work devices, spend some time outside with my family, cook together or watch a show together — it helps to do something we can share. A bit of wine helps too, I’ll be honest.

But it isn’t only about handling your individual stress, it is also about managing the stress of the culture. A good organization is more than one person, and as a leader, it is important to instill confidence in your team and imbue everyone with the tools they need to succeed in the midst of a stressful time. I’m very fortunate to have an amazing team with me. They are truly a resilient crew, and I know they can handle anything that comes their way.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

For us, this starts with the work. We’re an organization that fights to end childhood poverty. If we are to lift children out of poverty, we need to work to break the cycle of poverty for their families. Part of what drives the cycle of poverty is a gulf of deeply seated inequity that is a sad reality in our country, and across the globe. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities are disproportionately impacted, with systemic racism driving inequity in both access to resources and opportunity creation.

While we continue to examine the impact of race, diversity, equity and inclusion in our outward-facing work, we also need to ensure we look inward at ourselves. As an organization, we have made a commitment to do the work required to create a more equitable, transparent and accountable culture. We are in the early part of the journey, but we have made this a priority in our work — and we are making progress. It is critically important to have a team with different backgrounds who can authentically and authoritatively speak about different communities and their experiences. It is equally important to diversify the voices at the table as we commit ourselves to new/better ideas and outcomes in our work against poverty.

As a leader, having a diverse team is crucial to the success of the organization because it makes us more creative and more effective. For Comic Relief US, I’m committed to continuously evolving and growing a more diverse, equitable and inclusive team because it absolutely improves our culture, our collaboration and our innovation.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

First, this starts with mission and values. We are explicit about the goal of our work: supporting programs that address both the consequences and increasingly the root causes of poverty. As we deploy the funds that we raise, we hold five values that guide our grantmaking work: impact, inclusion, interdependence, integrity and intersectionality. These themes hold us accountable and are rooted across our work. A couple of examples:

We try to bring together a diverse set of partners to increase the impact of the work. Last year we started a campaign called The Full Plate Project to tackle food insecurity and child hunger during the holidays. Our partners on that project were anchored in community and somewhat unexpected as a coalition: pairing more traditional organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs of America with West Town Bikes, a youth empowerment group in Chicago and The Ali Forney Center, an LGBTQ homeless organization in New York. This was about very different organizations working together for a common cause, creating differently structured programs all of which had the goal to support children facing food scarcity in winter.

We have a newly defined empowerment strategy that we just launched at Comic Relief US. We added Empowerment to our other core pillars [Safe, Healthy and Educated], expanding our grantmaking to support community organizations through two strategic frames: economic opportunity and youth leadership development. We are excited about the launch of this new pillar, and we think we can create a more equitable foundation to lift children from the cycle of poverty into stronger opportunity.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

When leading an organization, your biggest responsibility is equal parts: keeping your eye on the future and vision of the organization, as well steering the path operationally, ensuring you are able to achieve the goals in front of you and the ones ahead. To me, this requires tapping into your own curiosity and desire to build something that is creative, unique and that has impact in the world.

As CEO, you are driving big reach ideas and you are also in the work pushing forth the plan to build and develop — I think you need to have each skill set to be an effective leader. And most importantly, you have to enjoy what you do and enjoy managing teams. The collaborative and innovative tone you set makes an enormous difference for everyone.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I’ve heard people mention leadership can be lonely and I feel lucky to say that I don’t find it so lonely. I think if you have a good team, and you surround yourself with smart, diverse people and have the humility to be to able ask questions, it can be an incredibly rewarding and exciting time as a CEO. I also think it helps to have the benefit of friends and colleagues who know you and with whom you can compare notes.

I’ve also been pushing back on some of the myths about non-profits and the social good sector overall. Moving from the commercial to the nonprofit sector, it is clear to me that the work is no less innovative or entrepreneurial — it is simply driven by a different goal. Especially during unprecedented times, I’m constantly motivated by my team for their willingness to push the boundaries and innovate around both our income/fund generation and our grantmaking strategies — and we utilize digital content, innovative partnerships, creative storytelling, data/analytics, and more across all areas. These are exactly some of the areas I would have built upon in my commercial work!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Compensation and options for career growth and career diversity. It’s often been ingrained in women to wait to be recognized for that bump in pay or that exciting new work opportunity. It can be a “wait your turn, and it will come” mentality. Many women push back against that old approach, and proactively advocate for themselves for both pay and opportunity. But unfortunately, for a woman executive, the act of advocating for oneself can be read differently than it is for men. Still today, it can sometimes be construed as too aggressive. That is an ongoing challenge that is improving, but sadly still a factor for many women executives.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think an obvious difference would stem from the massive impact following the onset of COVID. I joined Comic Relief US with the clear goal to innovate and create change, which we’re absolutely doing, but the challenge to maintain a level of stability within the organization while trying to innovate during the pandemic has been challenging — but not impossible.

One surprise was how much I’ve been able to bring my previous digital experience into this role. That is super invigorating for me, as it has long been a part of my work and career. Digital fundraising gives us the ability to scale quickly and engage a wide, diverse, and young audience that has a true passion and energy for social purpose. Especially since the onset of COVID, social purpose work is happening more and more online — it has to. I’ve been struck by how powerful and deep of a giving community you can build by creating immersive and dynamic experiences across digital.

For instance, we generated $4.7M with one of the biggest content creators today, Sean “Jacksepticeye” McLoughlin, on a project called Thankmas with our key partner Tiltify. Together we unlocked funds from generous donors on YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and TikTok, all to help children around the world impacted by the pandemic. These kinds of fundraising efforts — multi-platform, omnichannel, rooted in platform partnerships, open to all — are really the future.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

To be a successful executive, you need to be curious, comfortable with taking a few risks and not be afraid to get back up after falling down. You have to have a mix of optimism and pragmatism, and leverage both to lead a team through the inevitable ups and downs of (any) work. A good leader is also willing to fight against their comfort zone and have the humility to know what you don’t know. I also find a sense of humor is enormously helpful. I think leadership is hard for those who are too rigid in their ways, who lack a sense of empathy, and for those who lead with a stick versus a carrot. Great teams thrive on trust and honesty — not head games.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

As a leader, you’re often seen as the common denominator; the North Star through which people are going to look for consistent communication, for clear direction and support, and as much transparency as possible. I do think the bar is raised a bit higher for women leaders versus men. I think it is expected that you will be an advocate for your team, and a mentor for them, cultivating your relationships and building a strong trust level. I also think many (not all!) women have this incredible superpower of communicating effectively, while leading with empathy and grace — all of which has become more important than ever, particularly as we’re all navigating this COVID crisis together.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I am naturally curious, and I have a passion for new ideas, so I always try to support people who are creating something magical in the world and seeking to make a true impact. Young people in particular are driven by the art of the possible, and whenever I can, I try to make myself accessible and make it a priority to continue mentoring young leaders. Whether that’s offering professional or personal advice or even just a quick response to a message — it’s so important not to lose sight of our own ability to help others and that we can have an impact even by just listening or bouncing ideas. I try hard to remember that and to engage whenever I can.

I love keeping my head and heart in the entrepreneurial space, and I am an advisor to several early-stage, socially conscious start-ups. I am also on the Board of TRACE, the leading global media, entertainment and brand platform for connected Afro-Urban millennials. I’m also a founding member of Kindred, the world’s first executive network built to prepare executives for the future of socially responsible business.

For me, the better job I do as a leader at Comic Relief US and a mentor, the more I can make the world a better place.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • Interesting work keeps your mind nimble and curious. Passion for your work matters. Dull work does exactly what you would expect.
  • Focus on the North Star — where your work has true impact.
  • Don’t let the “perfect” get in the way of the “really good”.
  • Only you can manage your own career.
  • Know when it is time to move on, and then do so gracefully.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Red Nose Day is the movement I work to inspire every day. For those who don’t know about Red Nose Day, it’s a campaign with the mission to end child poverty by funding programs that keep children safe, healthy, educated and empowered. Through the power of entertainment, we bring people together to laugh and have fun, all while raising life-changing funds to support children who are facing the toughest of circumstances. Since our US debut in 2015, we have raised over $240 million and have positively impacted over 25 million children in America, and around the world.

Red Nose Day is part of a much larger global movement to end child poverty and hunger, and we drive change by creating a fun (a red nose!), easy and accessible way to get involved. Everyone can have a role in this movement, so I hope people will join the Red Nose Day community, which you can do at rednoseday.org.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

To me, that quote is about constantly being able to unpack what is happening in your life, then turn it into action of some kind. You can also over-examine what is happening in your life, which can overwhelm and can cause stasis. The key is to stay in the former not the latter — a balancing act.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Isabel Allende — because she is a force of nature and bravely charts her own path.

The best way to keep up with Alison is to join the Red Nose Day community, https://rednoseday.org. Alison also welcomes new connections on LinkedIn, http://linkedin.com/in/alisonmoore1.

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