6 Practices to Change Your Charity Sustainably

I fully understand and have the first-hand experience of the many challenges faced by those who lead a a small charity or volunteer organisation. That is why some of my work, including a significant current assignment, leads me to today’s thinking.

We all live in a VUCA world

While most often our change writing focuses on the business community, the pressures of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity apply equally to colleagues in other sectors. A primary difference, however, in the charity sector, is that they are, more often than not, delivered by volunteers. They may be led by paid staff, but their workers are usually unpaid. They experience the same pressures of sustaining their work but do so, often without the right culture and leadership to help them achieve their goals.

A classic case – my current assignment

On Monday 15th April 2019, I led a strategy session for a small charity that delivers a broad range of community activity, including childcare. The trustees hired me as they were concerned about their long-term future and sustainability. It is a common worry in the voluntary and community sector.

Before the strategy session, I spent approximately three days gathering data to build my view of the organisation, through desk research and face-to-face semi-structured interviewing of trustees, key personnel and users.

I analysed and shared that data in an initial findings report, which we discussed in our strategy session. They now have a plan for change.

Six practices that even small charities must practice

Critical to the journey that is now underway for my client are these practices, more fully developed in the book, The HBR Leader’s Handbook, by Ron Askenas and Brooke Manville:

  1. Building a unifying vision – every journey begins with the end in mind. As Simon Sinek describes it, finding your “Why”. The charity needs to set out its purpose, and a session to draft a refreshed vision, mission and underpinning values will happen soon.
  2. Developing a strategy to deliver their vision – like many organisations I work with, the charity had no business strategy, no plan for how to achieve the goals it will set out. My data analysis gave them the basis for developing one.
  3. Getting people on board – the stagnating practice allowed in recent years has alienated people both within and without the charity. Building a unifying vision and developing a strategy will go some way towards getting people back on board. Demonstrating authentic leadership will further strengthen that approach, and securing the services of the right person to lead the new change agenda will become a critical aspect of the way forward.
  4. Focusing on results – when I sought evidence of the progress the charity is making, I found very little. People could not demonstrate what ‘success’ looked like, nor could they specify any evidence pointing to progress. That will change with the new business strategy.
  5. Innovating for the future – the offer of the charity has stood still for five years. It needs refreshing, and updating and new elements encouraged. An essential part of the next few months will be a journey of discovery to see what local people need, want and desire, and matching that with the capacity and capability of the charity to deliver.
  6. Leading yourself – in this context, that short phrase applies to the trustees of the charity. The need to understand one another better, continue to grow and develop, to share themselves with each other, and take better care of each other will be strident calls to action for those current members of the Board of Trustees, and any subsequent appointments.

Their journey has just begun, and yet the excitement among the trustees and staff is palpable. I believe that following the six practices described above will ensure that the charity moves into a much healthier, more sustainable future. That has got to be a brilliant outcome for their beneficiaries!

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