Building resilience and sustainability – tips for charity leaders

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Part of GSK IMPACT Awards

Charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of society. They mobilise, they provide, they inspire, they advocate and they unite. Yet for them to continue to flourish, it is clear that they must be supported and promoted.
Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society, March 2017

Successful charities – of any size – need dedication, passion, hard work and determination to achieve their goals.

The King’s Fund has worked with charities and their leaders for many years, most notably through the GSK IMPACT Awards, now celebrating their 20th anniversary.  Our work with these organisations – mostly charities with an income of less than £2 million – has highlighted some of the most common and pressing challenges they face. During the 20 years we have been working on the GSK IMPACT Awards, we have visited more than 400 organisations and reviewed thousands of charity applications. Shortlisted applicants receive an in-depth assessment visit, and winning organisations are offered leadership training. Charities really value the support and development that the GSK IMPACT Awards offer, and so we have produced this paper to share some of the knowledge and feedback we have gained over the years.

See a brief visual summary below, or scroll down to read the full feature.

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

Person looking into a mirror

Although charities recognise that developing their leadership skills is important, leaders sometimes feel there are too many other demands on their time or resources to justify investing in themselves. 

One of the key issues the leaders we work with raise is how isolated and unsupported they feel, which in turn can erode resilience and confidence. They tell us of the multiple demands of their role, the lack of a budget to support training and development and the constant pressure of balancing funding, capacity and demand. 

They also tell us how much they gain when they are given the ‘permission’ to focus on their own leadership, to learn from others, to be supported to address challenging situations, and to build the confidence to do more, forge new partnerships and collaborations and raise awareness of their work. We have seen transformational change from leaders who have had the chance to do this and huge benefits for their organisations, such as increased growth. 

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

A board - four people sitting in a row

Robust governance is key to the success of any charity, as supported by the Charity Commission and others. During our assessments of GSK IMPACT Award applicants, the relationship between the organisation’s executives and the board of trustees can be highlighted as an area of weakness. This may manifest itself as blurring of boundaries between operational and strategic management; the board’s lack of sustained involvement or understanding of its role and responsibilities; gaps in skills or leadership on the board; strained relationships between CEOs and boards or between chairs and other trustees; CEOs feeling frustrated and demotivated. 

Some charities carry on with these situations for many years without really analysing the impact this has across the whole organisation. 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

Trustees' report

The trustees’ report provides an opportunity for you to tell the public or funders what you do, how you know you do it well, what your plans are, how prudently you spend your funds, what the people who use your services think of your work and how they are involved in defining and delivering what you do. Funders really do read the detail. Some of the reports we read give an extremely good impression of the charity, but a surprising number are very disappointing; even quite large charities have provided limited information to meet their reporting requirements, or only mention a few activities and don’t talk about the outcomes.

TIP: The trustees’ report should not just be left to the finance manager and treasurer; it is worth investing time and effort in producing a full and accurate reflection of your organisation.

Present and analyse your data carefully

Magnifying glass over bar chart

Some organisations are very good at analysing and presenting measures of impact and value to explain the effect of their activities and use this to assess their effectiveness and to inform their strategic planning. 

However, an issue that is raised time and again as part of our GSK IMPACT Award assessments is the presentation or availability of data and the ability of an organisation to articulate its value across multiple funding streams. 

When we’ve asked for data we’ve had a range of responses: least helpful is being sent numerous case studies with no analysis, or reports that are hundreds of pages long where we need to look for the key information, or when organisations can only report in depth on a small proportion of work. 

TIP: Invest time in pulling your data together, being clear on the difference between your activities and your impact and in articulating your value. Provide a good narrative, including how you are responding to the findings, that will make sense to those outside your organisation.

Weigh up the opportunities and risks of partnerships

Shaking hands

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. 

However, our recent report (Modelling excellence in the charity sector) showed that some of the most successful charities were distinguished by their approach to partnership working. They were able to build constructive and purposeful relationships, actively engaging with other organisations in order to collaborate and work towards shared objectives. This in turn had allowed them to diversify into new areas, providing access to new funding streams. They had also often developed strong relationships which influenced strategic and commissioning decisions and demonstrated the value of the third sector to statutory partners. 

Commissioners often favour larger organisations or contracts, or opt to work with a consortium, which requires extensive partnerships and negotiations. 

TIP: Carefully weigh up the opportunities and risks of partnership work – both of taking part and of not taking part, there are pros and cons for each. Small organisations can easily be sidelined in partnership working, so be assertive when negotiating terms and articulating the distinctive value you bring, and make sure you are clear on areas such as budgets, quality, responsibility and risk.

Manage capacity and demand to ensure sustainability

Service users and money pot on weighing scales

Achieving financial sustainability and meeting demand for services are the two top challenges for many charity leaders. Some charities we’ve worked with are responding to these challenges by reconsidering their charitable objectives and purpose, while others are considering restructuring, or even merging with another charity. Some are taking a more focused approach to providing and targeting resources or ‘streamlining’ the portfolio of activities and services to deliver the greatest impact with the available resources. Others have sought to manage demand, which also requires careful communication to manage public expectations. And a few charities were considering if and how funds can be raised from clients for their services.

An additional challenge for some charities is how to deliver public service contracts to the standard they want on the money available. A report by New Philanthropy Capital (May 17) found that almost two-thirds of charities delivering public service contracts need to use other sources of income, such as money from fundraising, to successfully deliver them, but only 11 per cent expect to be delivering fewer public service contracts in three years’ time. 

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

A team of three people standing together

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. As several organisations have discovered, there are risks attached to having that one high-profile or ‘heroic’ leader.

These individual leaders often become very stretched as the organisations grows, and this can have an impact on their operational management and fundraising and on the organisation’s direction. As those leaders may be key drivers in the organisation’s success and hold many of the funding relationships, the organisation may be vulnerable if that individual is no longer able to play the same role.  

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

Two people talking

Many of the leaders we have worked with have grown into their roles as their organisation has expanded and developed. They may be carrying out a range of different tasks, but 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. 

CEOs can carry a lot of anxiety about not knowing all the answers, and this can add to the pressures of leadership. We’ve seen a palpable sense of relief when, for example, a very experienced CEO received the right training to enable them to really understand the organisation’s accounts and terminology and hold their own with the board or auditors. There can also be a governance risk if leaders are not fully conversant with their organisation’s financial information and reporting. 

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

Funding application form and coins

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

The strongest applications have some common characteristics. They 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 easy for experienced CEOs who have submitted numerous successful funding bids in the past to make assumptions about what they need to say and how they need to say it, to fail to reflect the importance of their work and to use complex and ambiguous sentences or rely on shorthand and jargon.

TIP: If you can, try to get someone who is not as close to the work to read and sense-check funding applications before they are submitted. If you can’t do that, 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

Broken piggy bank

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

Most charities we visited have to work with short-term funding and significant uncertainty about ongoing funding. There is sometimes a real sense of living hand to mouth, and there is often little margin for error in ensuring they have the cash and reserves to cover their commitments.

It is essential to have a clear strategy for managing income and responding to increases and decreases. Some of the organisations we visited as part of the GSK IMPACT assessment were still taking a reactive approach to financial management, and in some cases were not fully aware of or were not facing up to the fact that their money was running out. It is dangerous to ignore warning signs.

TIP: You will have a better chance of solving any funding problems if you predict them well in advance and explore your options carefully. Keep trying to diversify income – difficult but important, and tell your funders as early as possible if you think you will have a problem; they may be able to renegotiate with you or reschedule payments to help see you through. 

About the GSK IMPACT Awards

The GSK IMPACT Awards, funded by GSK, provide core funding and leadership programmes for charity leaders. They are aimed at charities working in health and care with income of less than £2.5 million. The award process includes an extensive shortlisting process followed by a detailed organisational assessment. Our report Modelling excellence in the charity sector provides a detailed analysis of the awards and its learning.

This paper is not an examination of all aspects of charity leadership, but shares the learning from our work with GSK IMPACT Award winners. The vast majority of charities in the UK are small and community-based; out of the 167,000 charities in England and Wales, almost 9 out of 10 have income under £500,000 but they collectively receive less than 10 per cent of the sector’s income.

We are grateful to GSK for its long-term commitment to funding the charity health sector, and its foresight in investing in the sector’s leaders. We would also like to thank the people who have contributed to and commented on this document, including charity leaders and ACEVO.

ACEVO and Charities Aid Foundation (2017). Social landscape 2017: the state of charities and social enterprises going into 2017 [online]. Charities Aid Foundation website. Available at: https://www.cafonline.org/about-us/publications/2017-publications/social-landscape-2017 (accessed on 5 September 2017).

Baroness Pitkeathly, Chair of House of Lords Select Committee on Charities 2016-17. ‘Charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of society, says Committee.’ UK Parliament website. Available at: www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/charities-committee/news-parliament-2015/charities-committee-report-published/ (accessed on 5 September 2017).

Charity Governance Code website (2017). Available at: www.charitygovernancecode.org/en (accessed on 5 September 2017).

Gilburt H, Gregory S, Baylis A (2017). Modelling excellence in the charity sector: learning from 20 years of the GSK IMPACT Awards [online]. The King’s Fund website. Available at: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/modelling-excellence-charity-sector.

Hoare G, Shea J, Murray P (2017). Charities taking charge: transforming to face a changing world [online]. New Philanthropy Capital website. Available at: www.thinknpc.org/publications/charities-taking-charge/ (accessed on 5 September 2017).

House of Lords Select Committee on Charities. Stronger charities for a stronger society. HL 133 (2016- 17).  UK Parliament website. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldchar/133/13302.htm (accessed on 5 September 2017).

Lloyds Bank Foundation (2016). Commissioning in crisis [online]. Lloyds Band Foundation website. Available at: www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk/news/research-and-publications (accessed on 5 September 2017).

Charity Commission for England and Wales (2017). ‘Recent charity register statistics: Charity Commission’. GOV.UK website. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/charity-register-statistics/recent-charity-register-statistics-charity-commission (accessed on 5 September 2017).

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