In a recent interview I asked Mark Lever, CEO of the National Autistic Society, what he thought charities gained from taking a more business-like approach. He answered me with a single word: “Survival”.
Need is growing, funding is contracting, grants are turning into contracts, and the people who are giving them out are looking for ever more things in return: cost savings, impact reports, social return on investment. For charities on the receiving end, it seems that ‘doing good’ is no longer enough.
Becoming more “business-like” can be an inflammatory phrase in the sector, but what it implies shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean operating like a pure-bred business. It doesn’t mean selling out your mission or your charity’s values. But it does imply getting a level of professionalism and focus: on clients and customers; on performance, impact and outcomes; on costs, revenue and KPIs; on doing things once and doing them right.
There’s been an increasingly common theme in some of my recent conversations with leaders in the sector: a recognition that some of these things are lacking in their organisations. So here are my top five focus areas for developing a high-performing organisation:
- Setting up a clear goal, achievable targets and efficient processes that enable people to spend their time and effort on the fewest things that matter most.
- Ensuring that everyone, in every role, knows what ‘excellent’ looks like, and has the tools, support and freedom to achieve it.
- Having the core disciplines and capabilities in place around managing projects, people, KPIs and contracts.
- Developing not merely convivial, but genuinely influential relationships with customers, partners, funders and commissioners.
- Having leaders throughout the organisation who will take the big decisions, while supporting and engaging their team to take the smaller ones themselves.
None of those five are easy to achieve, but the single biggest factor that will determine whether or not you can achieve them is whether the people in your organisation believe they’re important. And that’s where the leadership team earns its spurs. Its role is to create that narrative, to ensure everyone understands how essential this is to the future of the organisation.
Every time you get on an airplane, you hear the same safety briefing. In the event of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t help others if you can’t breathe yourself. The same is true for your charity. Improving performance is the oxygen mask that you need to put on if you’re going to continue serving the people who need you most.
At a recent CEO breakfast, I asked the group what challenges they faced in improving performance. One of the most experienced of all the CEOs present said this: “It feels like there’s a moral offset sometimes in our sector; because we know we’re doing something inherently good we seem to think it’s less important that we do it as well it can be done. It’s as if we think that ‘doing things well’ matters less than in other sectors.”
As the room fell quiet, she finished with this thought: “What if we put as much passion into improving the way we work and the quality of our delivery, as we put into championing our cause?”