Over the last couple of months, we’ve been lucky enough to interview some amazing leaders in the charity space for our new series, handily titled ‘Charity Leaders Podcast’. During these interviews, a few common themes emerged and over the next couple of weeks we will write about these
The differences between running a charity and a commercial business
How you shouldn’t be afraid of marketing in a charity
The importance of belief and loving what you do
The benefits to charity leaders of experience in the commercial sector
How charities need to fight for everything and never compromise on quality
However, we wanted to start with the most on-trend of topics, the effect of the pandemic. It’s a slightly different take from many reviews of the pandemic because it is centred on what the pandemic proved about charities and the people that run them - their passion for the job they do means they won’t allow anything to stop them.
Honestly, I cannot convey how inspiring it is to listen to these men and women that have faced up to the difficulties the pandemic bought and come out the other side not just still fighting but in better shape than ever.
A Moment of Reflection
One common theme from all the leaders we spoke to was how they used this time to stop and reflect on the nature of the charity, its direction and how they best support the people they pledge to help. As we will see later on, the pandemic has allowed some to push through new initiatives and changes, but for everyone, it was about how the business should work overall.
Career Connect are a great example of a charity looking at the pandemic and making some big decisions on the shape of their offering. For some time they had considered introducing outplacement services, which were a natural complement to the careers advice they already did.
With so many people going through Furlough and then ending up redundant, it was the perfect time to launch. Adding the new service was good for generating much-needed funds for the charity but it also fitted their values perfectly, as they look to help people with their future careers.
Over at Mental Health First Aid (England), CEO Simon Blake was taking the chance to reflect in a different way, by introducing a fundamental change to how the business operated, publishing an anti-racism statement of intent and an action plan. It meant they would be completely open and accountable on the subject, a brave and powerful change. Just this week they have published the results of the first year of the initiative.
Perhaps the biggest example of a charity completely changing its outlook and structure is Dallaglio Rugby Works. As a charity, they relied heavily on fundraising and pretty much lost £1M overnight.
It forced them to assess the roles that really mattered to the charity and in restructuring, they removed 50% of the jobs (all have been found other jobs!). Whilst it’s never an easy decision to make when your ultimate goal is helping young people, you know it’s the right thing to do.
It was also by focusing on who their end ‘customer’ was that they decided to rebrand the charity and have a much better emphasis on young people and what they wanted. They come out of the pandemic with a completely new company structure and a totally different outlook and brand.
Pretty much everyone we spoke to said that the pandemic pushed them into becoming far more digital than they ever imagined or could have hoped for. In the case of Simon Blake at Mental Health First Aid (England), he was honest enough to admit it was never even something they were pushing for or considering, as it felt alien to what they offered.
Many of their trainers were concerned about going online because they couldn’t see the important visual aids you get in person and were unable to have private conversations.
By being forced into an online setting they have learned how to make it work, meaning they can now go digital, whilst nothing is stopping them going back to face to face training as well - they have options.
To show the speed at which change happened for them, consider this impressive timeline
March 16, very little training was online
March 23 starting doing training online in earnest
Within 3 months they could deliver all the main courses online
Now, all of the courses are available online
Here are some other examples from the leaders we spoke to about how digital transformation was able to get pushed through
The Directory of Social Change was able to take their massive selection of courses into the online space, greatly increasing exposure and being able to help more people
Dallaglio Rugby Works put time and focus on their social media channels as the prime communication route and started talking to their prime audience (the young generation) in a better way
At KM Charity, they took the time to put in a formal strategy and focus more on their core programmes, turning them into digital offerings
99% of the services offered by Career Connect were delivered face to face, but within months they were able to run all services virtually and in fact didn’t need to make any staff furloughed as a result of maintaining their service delivery
My favourite quote on the subject of digital transformation and being forced to innovate came from Anthony Impey, the CEO at Be The Business, as he described it
"In the first 3 months of Lockdown, there was 3 years worth of innovation"
Time To Push Through Change
A lot of charities were able to push through change that had previously been blocked. The greatest example of this appears above, in the levels of digital transformation that has happened, but there were other examples too.
Let’s take the example of the Directory for Social Change. Debra Allcock Tyler had wanted to push for a 4-day working week for some time, but it was not something that would be approved by her board.
However, once people within the organisation realised how effectively people worked from home and that working less traditional working days and times were improving efficiency and staff morale, mindsets changed.
In fact, as Debra tells the story, she was inspired by a book by Rutger Bregman called Utopia For Realists, in which he describes a society with visionary ideas that are wholly implementable. She was able to get approval without even having to submit a formal paper to the board because they were so engaged with the idea.
What’s wonderful about the story is not how the business changed to allow their staff a better working balance that has also benefited the not-for-profit, but how Debra describes it
“Don’t think about it as a 4-day week, think of it as a 3-day weekend!”
Only then do you get a true feeling for what they have tried to implement. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 businesses are looking at introducing a 4 day week, it will be intriguing to see how many achieve it.
Over at KM Charity, the CEO Mike Ward talks about his ambition to make homeworking an integral part of the charity’s working practices and how the pandemic made that a reality. He had always believed, like many others, that working from home as part of a management strategy was in fact going to be a positive and help his charity.
Whilst not in the circumstances he would have liked, he got to have a live test of that theory and of course, it’s proven him 100% correct. As we came out of Lockdown, KM Charity have been able to continue with a home working policy, giving people the flexibility they appreciate.
A Different Approach to Furlough and Job Loss
The charity sector certainly met the challenges of the pandemic and furloughing staff very differently to many businesses. As we’ve already heard, Career Connect actually created an entirely new offering to support those going through these processes.
Barry Fletcher, the CEO at Career Connect, was keen to stress that in fact, charity services like theirs were more important than ever in the pandemic because it meant so many young people were without jobs, with no idea of when that might change.
For Sarah Mortiboys, whilst they had no choice but to let so many of their staff go, she was determined to support them until they found new roles, something that all of them achieved. This approach was not so common in commercial businesses but it is what one expects from a charity with clear values towards their staff and it was appreciated by those that were fortunate enough to stay in roles, making them even more loyal.
Meanwhile, Debra Allcock Tyler ensured all of her staff that were furloughed remained a part of weekly meetings so that everyone in the business felt close to them still. It was important for not just those on furlough but also those that remained in work.
For those aspiring to become leaders in the charity sector, there is so much to learn from these leaders, I would encourage everyone to go and listen to the whole podcast series
If you are a charity that needs support putting in place marketing strategies to help increase the funds you generate, have a look at how we helped Career Connect put in place an entirely new revenue-generating service, built them a content strategy and a clearer proposition to take to market and if that inspires you, please do get in touch, our business was created t support charities just like yours.