What do 200 charity professionals think the biggest issue going forward is?

Like many, I’ve spent a long time since the general election licking my wounds and scratching my head. I think that period of reflection has been good for me, and my wellbeing. At Audience we’ve also being using a similar tactic to think about the state of the sector, and how we can actually transform and move forward (rather than just talking about how we absolutely, definitely, totally have to, which I have been doing, and will again in future blogs).

What has been really helpful for me is to listen, not talk. To receive rather than constantly transmit. To connect with different people, to try and look at things from different angles.

For me and the team at Audience, this has meant doing some very interesting things. Personally, I’ve taken on a trusteeship again. I’ve committed to giving a day’s free strategic consultancy every month to charities who wouldn’t otherwise commission it. I’ve reconnected with people that inspire me, and I’ve started to use social to ask questions.

Ask scary questions and you get scary answers

Recently, I asked the great and the good what they thought the biggest issue for the sector was going forward, it got a surprising amount of traction. I wasn’t undertaking any detailed, or rigorous research. I just wanted to get a bit of a litmus test for what was on people’s minds; what their fears and frustrations were. Over 200 people responded. Here’s a few top line thoughts before we get into the responses:

  1. 50% of responses came through direct messages rather than openly commenting on Twitter or LinkedIn. Many of which said that they wanted their thoughts to remain confidential. On the whole, these were from more senior charity leaders. People were hugely frustrated but didn’t want their views publicly known.
  2. A sizeable majority of overall responses came from mid-level charity employees. Many different issues, but all mainly around how it’s the senior level above that’s stopping/blocking/hindering shit happening.
  3. There is a huge amount of similarity of issues in the UK, Ireland and the USA. We’re all in this together it would seem. Broad generalisation there, and sample sizes for Ireland and USA are small.

Let’s open Pandora’s box

So, what are the top issues? I’ve grouped them into broad categories for your delectation. By the way, if you are here expecting me to give a solution to these issues, you are reading the wrong blog. I’m just thinking it would be useful, and helpful to hear what 200 people think. In no particular order…

  • Arrogance of the strength of the brand – People feel that there is an expectation within their orgs that the charity deserves support just because of its name, its existence and more scarily, just because it’s a charity that ‘does good stuff’.
  • Lack of talent – At all levels. Executives, Managers, Leaders, Boards. Agencies too.
  • Lack of ambition – See bullet point above.
  • Lack of diversity – Again, see bullet point above.
  • Financial illiteracy – A lot of this was geared around a lack of/wrong measures and irrelevant/outdated/unhelpful KPI’s. Lots of focus on how trustees need to step up their finance swagger too.
  • Complacency and stagnation – Lots of comments around people burying their head in the sand, thinking “this will all blow over soon” and a yearning for “the way things used to be”.
  • Lack of agility – Huge amounts of passion here around how inefficient structures are, speed of decision making, inability to get stuff to market. Importantly, many people don’t feel they have the autonomy to make decisions, especially new ones.
  • Lack of collaboration – Linked to the first point about arrogance, but also a frustration around navel-gazing, that people are looking inward or backward for the answers, following the crowd or basically just being big old lemmings. Also, that other charities are seen as competitors, building walls around yourselves and little on transformational ideas around large scale collaboration at a macro level.
  • Short-termism – Lack of strategy, vision, year-end financial targets hindering long-term transformation, and too much focus and capacity on the hamster wheel of activity and tactics bringing in diminishing returns.
  • Lack of relevance – Not in terms of what the charities actually do, more around why people should actually care, engage and support. A lack of understanding around values, changing demographics and how to redefine the role of charities and people’s connection to them going forward.
  • Lack of leadership – This one speaks for itself, but mainly geared around how leaders prioritise being operationally astute over being visionary, innovative and entrepreneurial.
  • Overly risk averse – Frustrations around the perfect storm of having to take risks at a time of plateauing or decreasing income, and what a difficult/impossible sell that is internally.
  • Lack of belief – In what charities are capable of. Issues around how they are not focusing on the big issues. Not standing up to the real bogeymen. Not having the real battles.
  • Lack of digital literacy – Across both fundraising and communications. Digital still being seen as a channel. Senior leaders not embracing, understanding, championing or financing a digital future.
  • Poor staff retention – Unrealistic fundraising targets, little support, frustrations that skills not being used properly. Many senior leaders actively pursuing an interim career as a way of avoiding the depressing and distracting quagmire of internal politics. Many people leaving the sector for good are precisely the people we need to stay. Many people we’d like to attract into the sector wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
  • Focus on growth over impact – Interesting discussions around how on one hand fundraising is ignored, and on the other how income is the defining organisational, macho KPI. Not enough focus on impact as the defining criteria for a charity’s existence.

Phewf! Do you need to stop for a cuppa? Go for it. See you in a bit.

Top 3 issues

So, what were the top 3 issues? The ones that came up the most. Crash helmets on…

  1. RELEVANCE
  2. SHORT-TERMISM
  3. LACK OF COLLABORATION

A lot to take in there. Three short bullet points but what they sum up is huge. A lack of understanding of how charities engage/communicate with the world, how they operate going forward and how they work in partnership with other charities and wider society. So, lots to do then.

My takeout from all this

Firstly, I couldn’t disagree with a single comment made by anyone involved. And importantly no-one involved actually disagreed with anyone else either.

I keep looking for an organisation, whether it be a charity, or an agency that is getting it right in terms of real transformation, and I can’t find one. But what I am seeing is people that are getting it right, within their own roles.

As with these 200 respondents, these people are scattered all over the sector. They aren’t all working for one charity, or one agency (imagine if they were!) They are across the sector, across the globe, and sometimes where you least expect them.

What we need are new, looser ways of connecting these people, of mobilising change with the people who are best equipped to do it. But every single one of these people is working hard as it is on their own particular organisational goals, which at the end of the day is what they are paid to do.

If we keep waiting for a single charity, or a single agency to nail the way forward so that we can then all follow and roll it out across the sector, we are going to be waiting a very long time.

My overriding thought from this exercise is, if these 200 people were the entirety of the sector, we’d be on a less shaky and more progressive trajectory than we are now.

So, how do we connect the real changemakers in the sector, the ones that are scattered across charities, agencies, consultancies and institutions?

How do we create an environment where people have the ability to balance the needs of the cause, or agency they work for, with the collective need to focus on transforming the sector as a whole?

And more importantly, how do we give them the coverage, the time, the agency and the collective tools they need to change the sector for the better?

Imagine a senior leader job description that said “50% of your time will be spent on achieving organisational goals. 50% of your time will be spent on a cross-sector project to transform civil society as a whole”.

It’d be a start, wouldn’t it?

Wayne Murray

Strategy Director

@WayneTheMurray

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