Still putting out the bins? Quit the routines and lead change instead

Running a charity is a very different gig to a business and brings different challenges, writes Neil Bradbrook

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Charities often have a complex set of customers and stakeholders. Normally in business it is the customer who makes the decision to purchase, pays for it, and receives the benefit. For charities these can often be three different parties, meaning a charity has to consider and meet the needs of each.

Charities run on much tighter budgets, so need to find creative ways to deliver success, but it also means there can be a continual worry about bringing in enough income to operate, and typically a charity’s income source tends to have too many eggs in one basket, putting it at risk of external changes – Covid being a prime example.

Staff and resourcing can present challenges too. Even national charities often have only a small head office team and consequently everyone gets sucked into the daily operations that keep your organisation running.

One of our clients – a seasoned CEO – told me a story of when she got her first CEO role. A friend was very impressed, but she swiftly dismissed this telling her: “It might sound grand, but the reality is it includes me putting the bins out.” And she wasn’t just talking metaphorically.

The problem is – years later – she tells me she still feels like the CEO who puts the bins out.

If this sounds like you, ask yourself this: if I were freed from these daily activities, where could I take this organisation?

As a CEO, creating and leading strategic change is your job. But it’s impossible if day-to-day routines get in the way. It’s tempting to think “It’ll be different next month – or next year.”

But it won’t. Change will only happen when you stop and decide to make change.

I can hear you asking: “How?” I use something called the Theory of Change. It’s a well-known methodology that’s particularly relevant for charities and the public sector.

Start with your end goal, then work out what conditions would need to be in place to get there. If your endgame is to create and lead strategic change, you need to have the time, resources and capability.

Firstly, you need to free up your time. This means passing the daily activities to someone else. This might mean getting a bigger team, which means more budget – and therefore board support. To garner board support you will need to clearly set out the benefits. If you had the time to lead the strategy, explain what that would bring for your organisation, and it must be both realistic and achievable.

If you have spent all your life running the operational side, you might not have led strategy before and might not know how to start. If this is the case, then you might need some training or external support.

Many charity boards have a wealth of talent around the table, which is often hugely underused. So your first port of call might be your board of trustees. Who’s got the skills and talent to help you shape your vision and provide some mentoring?

However, sometimes the board itself can be part of the problem. Maybe they like the status quo and believe the CEO should be managing the details. If that’s the case, then seek help externally to influence the board. There are people out there with the skills and ability to help, so you’re not on your own.

There are also ways to get the help you need without having to spend money. Use your network and ask for help. Talking to other charity CEOs is a great start.

Covid has created a whole lot of change and complexity for everyone. And charities are no exception. When people are tight for money, the little bit extra that goes to good causes might disappear. Volunteers might have less time to give. And meantime there are more needy people who need your services.

So being a charity leader is a tough gig. In tough times, people will turn to you to navigate uncertainty, so you need to be in a place where you can deal with that change effectively. That place shouldn’t be round the back with the bins. It should out in front, doing things differently.