Charities Biggest Secrets: what every emerging non-profit leader should know

Why do charities have so many secrets? Richard Freeman shares his thoughts about the priorities for non-profit leaders in 2023.

I’ve been working with charity leaders for the past 20 years, on everything from strategy and campaigning to fundraising and service design. I’ve been employed by a few, been a trustee, consultant and researcher. I’ve helped set some up and close some down.

But this last three years has shown me the best and worst of third sector leadership. And I can see that the ones who are thriving, and the ones who know how to ask for help.

In a world that often views charities as the paragons of virtue, admitting to operational or strategic frailties can be tantamount to sacrilege. And let’s be honest about the public perception paradox. On one hand, you need to demonstrate efficacy and impact to draw funding, public trust and those elusive government contracts. On the other hand, this creates a tacit culture of sweeping challenges under the rug. No one wants to air their dirty laundry when they’re vying for the spotlight—or more practically, for limited resources. It’s like applying for a job and openly discussing your worst qualities; charming in theory but a real-world no-no.

The new rules of the game

The pandemic has seen a new wave of charity leaders step-up. You’re in an essential position, a linchpin holding things together. Yet, we’re all navigating a cost of living crisis that’s making the waters choppy for everyone. So, new leaders need to be more savvy and more strategic than you’ve ever dreamt of.

Operating Costs: Read the Room

Budgets probably keep you awake at night. They always did. But not like this. Inflation is not some abstract term for economists; it’s a real, palpable force affecting everything you oversee. You’ll need to be smart with your funds. Cut back where you can, but please please please think about the long game. Some initiatives might need to go on hold. It’s tough. It’s leadership. But don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater. Have sensible conversations with donors about specific and valuable investments.

We have clients talking to donors about targeted development projects, internal reviews and innovations. Don’t be shy to be brave.

Staffing: More Than Numbers on a Spreadsheet

You’re a Living Wage employer, I hope. It should be non-negotiable for charities. But it does mean the financial jigsaw puzzle you’re solving just got a bit more complicated. Staff are your biggest asset, so keep them in the loop. Their costs are rising. Spending on good staff and infrastructure services your charitable aims, not diminishes them. But transparency here is not just good manners; it’s good business.

Say it Loud and Clear: Transparency is Non-Negotiable

Your stakeholders are not just passive observers. They’re part of your ecosystem. Treat them as such. When you make decisions—be it in finance, staffing, or time bound projects — be open about it. Honesty breeds trust, and in our digital age, trust is currency.

Embrace Collective Genius: Collaboration Isn’t Just a Buzzword

You can’t carry the weight alone, and why would you want to? Partnerships and collaborative projects could be the fresh wind in your sails. It’s time to break down silos and think about the charity sector as an interconnected web. Your mission might be unique, but your challenges aren’t.

Businesses might be all talk at the moment as they get their houses in order. But many are leaning-in to a 21st century model of impact and change. You’re the experts – sell that knowledge to them.

You’re A Digital Business

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that technology is not an optional extra. Whether it’s for project management, fundraising, or service delivery, get comfortable with digital. If you aren’t, find someone who is. No excuses.

But technology has one role – to make it easier to be human. Review the things that take up more time than they should; do a skills audit. And then you should have a specific ask for those that do know what they doing, and with a bit of smart collaboration you could save months and £millions.

The Social Value Conundrum: More Than Just Good Intentions

Everyone joins this sector to make a difference; to add one more layer of ‘better’ in the world. But here’s the rub: defining and measuring ‘social value’ beyond your core mission is often like trying to catch smoke with a net. It’s elusive. It’s nebulous. And it might be costing you when it comes to procurement opportunities.

We live in an era of metrics and KPIs, and most procurement processes are built to favour what can be easily quantified. So if you’re great at feeding the hungry but can’t translate that into economic or social metrics that the local council cares about, you’re at a disadvantage. I know the system is the problem. But you can’t make it better if you’re not part of it.

Measuring social value is a hoop-jumping exercise. It’s crucial. But the common metrics often overlook the intangibles, like community trust and social cohesion. These are the things you can’t easily slap a number on. However, they are actually what makes you indispensable.

Now, why does this matter for procurement? Because if you can’t articulate your organisation’s broader social value, you’re less likely to secure public service contracts. The commissioners aren’t necessarily the bad guys here; but they do venerate numbers and spreadsheets. How confident are you that you can codify the intangible good you do?

Engage early and often with commissioners. Help them understand the qualitative richness you bring to the table. You’ll need to be fluent in their language, the language of hard metrics, but also help them become fluent in yours—the language of genuine, wide-ranging impact.

Chin Up

Being a new and emerging charity leader now isn’t just challenging; it’s a crucible that tests your skills, empathy, and adaptability. The current cost of living crisis? Consider it a backdrop against which your leadership qualities will shine or fade. It’s real, it’s now, and it’s an obstacle course we can navigate with pragmatism and collective will.

What playbook are you using? What do you need? Adapt, collaborate, and steer your organisation through these intriguing times. You’re up to the task, and you’re not alone.

I’d love to hear about your plans and ideas, and to see if I can troubleshoot anything.