A very contentious question

Questions - sOne of the first charity CEO seminars I ran was on developing an organisation’s culture. I’d originally thought about calling it “professionalising your charity” but the first people I spoke to about it, all raised similar concerns. To a person, they broadly said: “I’m fine with it, because I think I know what you mean, but most people will think you’re implying that charities are unprofessional. It’s a good topic, but you might want to change the title.”

I took their advice, changed the title, and it did indeed prove to be a good topic and a great session. It also gave rise to a profound insight from one of the attendees, a brilliant CEO, sadly now retired, who said, “It sometimes feels like there’s a moral offset in the sector; that because we’re doing something inherently good, it doesn’t matter if we don’t do it terribly well. We need to fix that.”

Afterwards, I asked if I could quote her because I thought what she’d said went to the heart of something very important. She replied that, while she was very happy for me to use the words, she would rather I didn’t attribute them because it would probably put some people’s noses out of joint.

Since then I’ve tried to find different words to use, different phrases to express the same underlying point, which is that charities could be far more successful if they developed more professionalism in a variety of areas. But I’m not convinced that my dancing around the language is helping.

Most people working in charities are perfectly professional within their technical area of expertise. But professionalism is a broad concept, and there are also plenty of areas within charities where, from the perspective of someone who’s worked in as many disparate organisations and businesses as I have, some of the practices and behaviours can be distinctly amateur. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a problem exclusive to charities.

Almost two decades ago I was headhunted from blue-chip retail into a big, private equity-owned pub company. I was hired because they wanted to bring in some commercial expertise, to help manage product categories, develop better marketing, promotions and so forth. But it turned out that the main impact I had in the first couple of years came from none of the above. It came from the skills and behaviours I’d unwittingly absorbed from the fast-paced, professional world from which I’d emerged.

From the basics of running good meetings and analysing performance, to influencing executives, creating strategic clarity, leading and managing change across departments. Skills I thought everybody had because, where I was from, it was impossible to rise through the ranks without them. Skills, it turned out, that were in surprisingly short supply in a big but very old-school industry.

Most of the very best teams I’ve encountered in the charity sector, have people within them who’ve learned those professional disciplines elsewhere and brought them into the culture. Those around them have often absorbed that professionalism – good people don’t go to work to do a bad job, and when they see better practices, they usually adopt them very quickly. I recently filmed a testimonial video with a client who reinforced that exact point: “… he behaves like that which has helped me deliver like that. I’ve adopted how he works with me in terms of how I work with the team.”

Fixing the underlying issue, as my CEO friend urged, requires first a recognition that there is problem, and I’m no longer convinced that my using ambiguous or softened language will help with that. So, allow me to be direct. In my experience, a lack of professionalism in a range of areas is holding many charities back, and addressing it will enable far better outcomes on many fronts.

My contentious question is this: how much more effective could your charity be if its people were more professional? If the answer is genuinely very little, great. But if the question itself offends you, it might mean that you’re part of the problem.

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