Why passion is not enough: we need to be brave and invest in our people

“A passion for what we do” is high up the page on most charity communication and recruitment information. But with a world suddenly changing at enormous speed, is a high level of passion enough, and are charities equipped with the capability, knowledge, and framework they really need to thrive in the ‘new normal’?  

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Interim charity director/CEO Ros Czarnowska asks, how do we ensure that we turn adversity into an opportunity to create a brighter future for our charities and our beneficiaries?

We have all had to make dramatic changes to the way that our organisations operate this year. During my research, I have heard consistently from CEOs and others working across the sector that the external cataclysmic change has thrown into sharp perspective any internal challenges that existed before. Since March, the speed at which we are having to solve problems, make decisions, and implement changes has dramatically increased. In some cases, this has highlighted issues that may not have seemed so critical pre-COVID, and as we move from the crisis phase to one of recovery, how do we use what we have learnt?

The role of trustees has been thrown into the spotlight, as three or five-year strategic plans ‘went to the wall’, and the normal pace and processes were suddenly disrupted. Not surprisingly, Kate Wilcox of CBR Solutions has found that boards’ responses have depended on the trustees’ attitudes, confidence levels and experience. She and others have found that where trustees aren’t comfortable with change they have tended to step back, but the other extreme has also happened – where they think they have all the answers, some have stepped in to focus on operational matters. Neither is helpful to a CEO.

Governance is too often a box-ticking exercise, but charities which have regularly invested the time to keep this current and effective, are now reaping the benefits. This isn’t just about making sure that trustees have clear roles, communicate effectively, and have a robust understanding of risk and the finances: clear operational governance at management level regarding accountability and decision-making is absolutely essential to weather a crisis as dramatic as the global pandemic.

Systems, policies and processes have been under scrutiny as many departments have been impacted and new ways of working have had to be adopted at speed. During a crisis, the inefficiencies, barriers and limitations that were under the surface become suddenly obvious, and as we move into the recovery phase it’s important we take time to reflect on them properly and identify how we can make our governance truly effective at all levels for the future.

Many of us have been feeling anxious and worried over the last few months, but because of the scale of the crisis there has not been time for ‘fear of failure’ to slow us down – staff have had to learn together as they put the jigsaw pieces in place.  Openness and communication has been critical.  The world is changing seismically, and our teams need to be fully equipped to not only face the future, but to shape it. What does that mean?  It means that making a difference going forward will require potentially a very different set of skills and attributes from the ones we have focused on in the past.

Adaptability has always been a common attribute in the sector. CEOs can turn their hand to anything in the course of a day but we haven’t always been so good at investing in continuing professional development for our teams. Now we need a level of expertise to drive forward change quickly and confidently. Do we really have the level of digital knowledge and understanding to thrive in a new world? Do we have the capability needed to think and work strategically, manage fluid risk levels, get the details right when working at speed?

We need to invest more and expect more of our people. We need to challenge our previous thinking on the competencies we cherish in our teams. Yes, passion is important, but without a growth mindset and strategic thinking at all levels, this won’t be enough. Tom Owen, CEO of The Green House in Bristol, describes it as a time to “reinvent and be fit for the future”. To do that effectively we also need to consider our relationship with and the skills set of the board, how we skill up our teams so we have the confidence to empower them, and how we create a framework and culture that really truly supports this all.

Pressing pause on business as usual has shifted our paradigms about what is possible and desirable. We shouldn’t be aiming to go back to the way things were – as Sarah Miller, CEO at The Papworth Trust told me, “our ambition should be more than just recovery”. Our beneficiaries deserve that.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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