Building resilience and sustainability – tips for charity leaders

For the past 20 years the King’s Fund has been providing leadership support to and working with charity leaders through the GSK Impact Awards. King’s Fund head of third sector Lisa Weaks details here some of the learning taken from the experience of these past two decades.

Successful charities – of any size – need dedication, passion, hard work and determination to achieve their goals. Here we provide insight designed to help build organisational resilience and sustainability, based on the learning and feedback from running these awards with GSK.

Take time to reflect and learn: a necessity not a luxury

As a charity leader you may feel there are just too many other demands on your time or the organisation’s resources to justify investing in yourself. One of the key issues the leaders we work with raise is how isolated and unsupported they feel which can erode crucial resilience and confidence.

TIP: Leaders need time to reflect on the organisation’s work, to examine their leadership styles, to learn new ways of working, and to receive support. In such a challenging environment for charities, it’s more important than ever to not see this as a luxury.

Build strong relationships with your board

Robust governance is key to the success of any charity. Poor relationships between CEOs and boards create tension, and can leave CEOs feeling frustrated and demotivated. Some charities carry on with these situations for many years but the longer it goes on, the more difficult it can become.

TIP: Analyse the relationships between you and your board; make sure your organisation examines board skills and leadership and has a critical eye on trustee roles. Surfacing these issues are the first steps towards making positive change.

Your trustees’ report should offer a full picture

The reports can be your organisation’s ‘shopfront’ and funders really do read the detail. However, we have seen many organisational reports that really don’t do them justice.

TIP: It is worth investing time and effort in producing a full and accurate reflection of your organisation – don’t just leave it to the finance manager or treasurer.

Present and analyse your data carefully

An issue raised time and again as part of our GSK IMPACT Award assessments is the presentation or availability of data which can make it hard for someone outside an organisation to fully understand the impact and value of the work.

TIP: Invest time in pulling your data together and providing a good narrative including how you are responding to the findings.

Weigh up the opportunities and risks of partnerships

Working in partnerships or collaborations is not always easy. It can take a lot of time and effort, choosing the right partners and negotiating terms can be critical, competition for funding often gets in the way, and organisational cultures may clash. But some of the most successful charities we have worked with were distinguished by their collaborative approach to partnership working, enhancing their ability to influence and raise funds.

TIP:  Carefully weigh up the opportunities and risks of partnership work – both of taking part and of not taking part. Small organisations can easily be side lined, so be assertive when negotiating terms.

Manage capacity and demand to ensure sustainability

Achieving financial sustainability and meeting demand for services are the two top challenges for many charity leaders.

TIP: Give yourself time to ‘think outside the box’ and be entrepreneurial; face up to tough decisions and change and make sure you keep abreast of new opportunities. Look after yourself and your staff to minimise stress, and don’t be afraid of saying no to new services, particularly if you can’t afford to run them.

Don’t ignore succession planning and empowering teams

Some charities are founded or driven by a passionate and committed individual, but there often comes a point when they need to take a step back or to share the load. These individual leaders often become very stretched as the organisations grows, affecting the whole organisation.

TIP: A more distributed approach to leadership across an organisation, where different staff can represent and carry out key tasks for the charity, receiving training and development to do so, will make organisations more resilient.

Ask if you don’t know the answer

Many of the leaders we have worked with have grown into their roles as their organisation expands. They may be carrying out a range of tasks, with little opportunity for training. They can then become ‘too senior and experienced’ to admit that they are sometimes not sure what to do or don’t have the right skills.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to get help if you need it – it will reduce the pressures of leadership but could also be an organisational risk if you don’t.

Produce engaging funding applications

What will draw someone to your funding application when they might have hundreds to read?

The strongest applications are clear and succinct, supported by convincing evidence on both the need for the work and its effectiveness; they describe how the organisation engages with people and communities, who they are and the difference it makes to people’s lives. In short, they tell a strong story. It is also easy to fall into the trap of using too much jargon and shorthand, or use complex and ambiguous sentences.

TIP: Consider honestly whether your application would stand out if it was the 30th or even 100th one you had read.

Don’t bury your head in the sand if the money is running out

The pressure to raise money is probably the thing that keeps most charity leaders awake at night.

Many charities have to manage short-term funding and significant uncertainty about ongoing income. Despite this we’ve seen many organisations which were taking a (risky) reactive approach to financial management, or were ignoring warning signs that the money was running out.

TIP: You will have a better chance of solving any funding problems if you predict them well in advance, talk to your funders and you keep trying to diversify income.

Download Lisa Weak’s full report here.

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