Leading a charity, it’s a big job – but the right mindset can move mountains

Published: 1st August 2019

Leading a charity, it’s a big job – but the right mindset can move mountains

Not-for-Profit, the voluntary sector, the third sector – however it’s described charities are being called on to deliver more than ever before for our communities, and at a time of unprecedented demand, uncertainty and change.

Statutory funding reductions, high profile stories about governance and other failures in some large charities and increasing levels of need from those who charities support, all add up to ever more being asked of the sector’s leaders.

So how can leaders ensure they deliver the best possible services and opportunities for those they support - without burning out their teams in the process? Well, having the right mindset can help.

Drive change before it drives you

Having been on a number of Boards across the private and not for profit sectors I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that charities are somehow innately less efficient, less business like and less likely to make difficult decisions than their private sector counterparts. As the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and limited and sometimes unpredictable income is a great driver of resourcefulness and creativity in many charities. The appetite and ability to identify and drive change and predict what is ahead is a necessary skill in any charity leaders’ toolkit.

Possessing the skill however is not enough, you need to know when to use it - and the answer about when to drive change is usually “much sooner than you think”.

Identifying the elements of what you do now that need to change, ahead of them becoming critical rather than reacting once they have, is something you need to make time for. It’s the paradox of the ‘urgent’ versus the ‘important’. It’s important to carve out thinking time to assess what you really need to spend your time on for the long term health of the charity, not just focus on immediate challenges. Admittedly this is difficult when juggling many competing priorities, but will pay dividends longer term. I use a 12 month rule – as a leader will something my time is being eaten up by really turn out to be important or a game changer in 12 months’ time? If not, should I be doing it?

Involving others in your organisation is a useful approach as well. Not only can some of the best ideas come from those nearest the coal face of service delivery, but making people feel part of the change, not just ‘subject’ to it can deliver increased levels of engagement, empowerment and wellbeing. So cross functional or cross team working groups are something to consider, just make sure you give them clear parameters and that they know the objectives that need to be delivered.

Harnessing the power of your mission

Charities can have a natural advantage over the private sector, which they neglect at their peril. Companies spend huge amounts of money developing a vision and mission to engage with their employees and customers in order to connect and get buy-in for their product, service or even culture and values. Charities generally have a head start – they were created purely with a meaningful mission in mind – and increasingly people are seeking meaning in their work, not just a job to pay the bills. Charities are ideally placed, but we need to be aware of the dangers of ‘mission fatigue’. It may sound obvious, but when was the last time you shared with your teams the overall impact your charity is having on the lives of those you support? Whether it’s sharing the combined impact measures you delivered last year, or bringing to life individual case studies, sharing the difference you make as an organisation with your teams can work wonders. With ever increasing demands, some of which you may not be able to satisfy, it can feel demoralising and overwhelming for employees who only see a small part of what your charity does. Reminding employees of your mission and the progress and the results you are delivering for people is a great way to motivate, re-connect and remind people why they wanted to work for you in the first place, and of the valuable contribution they are making to improving lives.

Be entrepreneurial

Whilst I’m not necessarily a fan of the label ‘entrepreneur’ - despite the fact it’s been applied to me over the years, many of the traits ascribed to entrepreneurs can be hugely valuable in any organisation, and I’d argue particularly in leaders of charities.

Passionate, committed, driven, adaptable, flexible, able to take risks, resilient (including in difficult financial situations), determined, hard-working are all traits commonly associated with being ‘entrepreneurial’. Sound familiar? Many charity leaders have these in spades and being entrepreneurial has just as much relevance and resonance in a charity as the private sector.

Embracing the need to be innovative, inventive, push the boundaries and maybe take some risks is likely to be central to a charity’s future sustainability. However sometimes if we focus solely on being the experts, knowing how things should be done, the ones who really care, and therefore the ones who know ‘what’s best’, we can become less flexible and less adaptable. Knowledge and expertise gained through valuable experience can be harnessed alongside being open to new and different solutions.

To protect our organisations, in order to survive and thrive to be able to continue to make the much needed impact charities deliver, then more than ever before we need to embrace an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. It’s therefore important to be open to opportunity and prepared to find new ways to; effectively ‘market’ the importance of what we do, gain profile, shine a light on need and develop networks and support, attract funding and critically how we engage with and really deliver for those we support.

It takes a special kind of leader to run a charity, but then it’s a rather special sector and luckily it attracts some exceptional talent - which is fortunate, given its importance looks set to increase even further in the future.

Insight from Rachel Hannan

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