Charities taking charge

There’s no shortage of reports documenting the challenges facing the sector, but those which come with solutions as well are thinner on the ground. This is why NPC’s Charities taking charge, released earlier this week, was a welcome addition to the debate. To adopt the classic Donald Rumsfeld principle, it outlined the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

Charities know their funding is under threat, and that they need to improve diversity at both a board and staff level. They know they need to better assess impact.

They know there is a need to do something about digital, but most of them don’t really know what that means. They don’t know what impact Brexit will have on their organisations and, curiously, they don’t seem to think it’s likely to be a problem when actually it‘s probably the biggest known unknown of all. At the very least we know can expect two years of economic unknowns, never mind whatever other unknown unknowns may be lurking around the corner.

The other curiosity revealed by Charities taking charge is that far too many charities don’t appear to think that a decline in public trust is causing them any issues.

None of these challenges and enigmas, however, are insurmountable. Where Charities taking charge diverges from some other approaches is that it begins to outline how we could start to address them.

There are many charities tackling problems head on and there is much that can be learnt from their approaches. One of the major themes to emerge from the report is that charities should refocus on their core mission. To quote one (anonymous) charity leader: “‘I can’t think of many charities that do one thing brilliantly well. We all do 370 core things to a mediocre standard.”

This chimes with what one of ACEVO’s members said when we were writing our campaigning report. To them, it felt like the charity sector had slipped out of ‘changing the world’ mode, and entered a ‘steady the ship’ mode. While this might help keep services open for now, it lacks the long term vision that many charity beneficiaries need.

You’ll be shocked that, given the nature of ACEVO, we think that leadership is core to achieving this. Yes, boards are absolutely crucial. But where CEOs exist, they need to be empowered to drive change throughout their organisations. On this note, there was an interesting stat in the report about changes to governance. 69% of chief executives said they had recently discussed changing their governance. This is compared to only 36% of trustees. This disconnect suggests to me that it is the executive level who are doing the long term thinking, and considering the fundamental shape of their organisation. While it’s good that this is happening, such an approach needs to become more common at all levels.

Another thing that needs to be addressed at all levels is the diversity in our sector – or lack thereof. NPC had a welcome focus on diversity in the report – but this issue affects entire organisations, not just trustees. We know that diversity leads to a greater range of opinions and experiences, which can only lead to better decision making. But, as recent pay survey showed, with only 3% of chief executives coming from BAME backgrounds, this problem clearly goes beyond the boardroom. Diversity needs to be addressed across organisations, from the chair of trustees to the interns in the IT department.

Finally, it wouldn’t have been an NPC report without that characteristic focus on impact measurement. To many charities, this is still seen as prohibitively expensive and a ‘nice to have’. But impact measurement doesn’t need to be a double-blind randomly controlled trial. It can be something as simple as having a chat with service users once every few months, and listening to what they say about your service. Evidence is important, but it also needs to be proportionate.

But what is most important about impact is that it is delivered – not its measurement, or who delivers it. It’s amazing what can be achieved when you don’t mind who takes the credit. This may mean less territorial thinking, tradition and caution and more collaboration with new partners, not-for profit, private sector or otherwise. This is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – existing relationships continue to need nurture and improvement.

All of this requires bold leadership, which is not afraid to address the big questions. With that, we can begin to shift the needle back to changing the world.

By Simon Dixon, Policy Officer

For a more detailed analysis of the report, NPC’s Patrick Murray has written a blog available here.

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