In episode two of the Charity Leaders Podcast, we’ve been lucky enough to interview Debra Allcock Tyler, the CEO of the Directory of Social Change, a charity that exists to ensure other charities in the UK can thrive, by providing training, funding sources and online resources to them.
Debra is passionate about charity and the importance of it in modern society, as you’ll learn, she doesn’t believe we can have enough charities and it is therefore her duty to ensure they are all given the best chance at success.
Aside from her busy day job, Debra is also a trustee for multiple other charities, which I think sums up her passion for the subject and how she makes it her life's mission to help as many people as possible. But it didn’t start out that way…
The Benefits of Starting in the Private Sector
Debra is another example of a leader in the charity space that began life in the private sector, the majority of people we have interviewed are in the same place. As Debra puts it, she doesn’t remember anyone at school or university telling her that they planned to go into the business of charity when they left.
Debra spent time in the private sector before starting at her first charity. She then spent a short period creating a business with a friend but it just didn’t resonate with her. The idea of just making money for themselves didn’t appeal and ultimately she missed helping others and her career path was set.
But her background in the private sector gave Debra an appreciation for the importance of sales & marketing, the business of being commercial. It is not something you can be afraid of. People don’t proactively give you money, you have to ask, as Debra puts it
“Just remember, that child keeps on starving unless you are prepared to move past being worried about marketing. Never be ashamed or embarrassed to do marketing and sell what you do to help others”
Marketing A Charity
So marketing is critical for a charity. Debra actually believes it’s more important for a charity and should be easier.
“You have a message that naturally appeals to people. You need to appeal to the heart, don’t be afraid to leverage the message of the people you are looking to help.”
You hear so much about authenticity in modern marketing and nobody can deliver an authentic message better than a charity. Make sure you keep your marketing in line with the values of the charity and you won’t go far wrong.
“Don’t market to a job title or social status as a charity, you are appealing to the human being in everyone, it really is a leveller in marketing terms.”
No One Does The Job Because It Is Easy
When Debra started her role in 2001 she only planned to stay for 5 years but here she is 20 years later still fighting on. But don’t mistake her longevity with it being an easy life, the job of running a charity is hard, stressful and full of tasks most people run a mile from. It’s more about the organisation than the job.
“Love the work of the organisation but not the job as much!”
In the early days, Debra even got hate mail for some of the changes they were making!
It can certainly be a lonely job at times, you have support from people, like Trustees, but they are not really there to vent or complain to, as Debra so elegantly put it - by the time an issue gets to the CEO, it is a pretty ‘stinky’!
If you want to read more about how tough it is, why not buy one of the three books Debra has written, we’d definitely recommend ‘It’s tough at the top’.
One great takeaway is to remember that openness and honesty are important but that doesn’t mean dumping all your personal problems on others, as a leader's discretion is important.
Just think of it as a parent. If you were close to a divorce, you wouldn’t sit down and open your heart to a 5-year-old about it! Tell the staff what is happening in the charity, but not so much about your individual challenges.
Focus On What’s Important
During our conversation with Debra, she made it clear that your job as a charity leader is to help others. This is partly about the people you help but also includes your own people. You should never be the focus, your job is to help others become the focus. A great example Debra gave us on this subject was writing proposal papers or opinion pieces.
“If you are writing papers all the time. WRONG. You help others to write the papers”
She also had an interesting take on the age-old complaint of ‘too many meetings’. Her view is the ‘The Meetings Are The Work’. 70% of your job should be talking and listening to people.
Don’t spend hours with admin and paperwork, you should be in meetings. It’s where you listen, strategise and problem solve - she then utters my favourite line from any of the podcasts
“All of that happens in a conversation with human beings”
A theme we have seen when talking to all the different charity leaders is the importance of ensuring everyone knows what’s happening. Many commercial businesses are quite closed to their staff but this is not acceptable in a charity. These are people who are bought into what you are looking to achieve.
Treat them like adults. If you are struggling for funding, be honest about it. This is where great ideas come from, people sharing and talking.
Achieving Great Things In Tough Times
We’ve heard great stories from all the leaders we interviewed about what they achieved during the pandemic, in fact, you can read an entire blog about it here. For Debra, a couple of key things were achieved
Online training became the norm. It was something she wanted to create for a long time and through necessity and everyone coming together, they made it happen and now, as we return to normality, they have a new revenue stream that will help the charity in the years ahead
She has instigated a 4-day working week or as she prefers to describe it - a 3-day weekend! This was achieved without having to put forward massive documents to the board and lobby for support, she was able to talk to board members and very quickly evidence the benefits and how it will improve the charity and make it a better fit for the future working world
Before we get to Debra’s top three tips, I wanted to leave you with a final thought that stood out from our conversation - there are never enough charities!!!
As she puts it, just because a charity for a certain illness exists, that doesn't mean you shouldn't create one. If you donate to another charity you are just remote. If you create a charity yourself, then you will knock on every door, nag all your neighbours and pester every relative.
Three Big Takeaways
Throughout this podcast series, we have asked our leaders to supply their top three tips for aspiring leaders. Debra has come up with some great ones.
Tell the truth. To the world. To your stakeholders. To your staff. This builds trust. This applies to marketing, donations etc...
Don't think about job titles. Think about humans in roles. Everything is easier if you just think about people as human beings
Appeal to the heart and back it up with data. Tell a story then support it with facts
To read more from Debra and see what The Directory For Social Change are up to
Wouldn't charity governance be so much easier if it wasn't for all of your fellow trustees?
There will be days when you feel like murdering your bosses, your team or your colleagues!
What are the critical dos and don'ts when you find yourself at the head of a charity?
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