THE BLOG

A Message for 2015 to Charity Sector Leaders: Step Up - or Step Aside

08/12/2014 12:33 GMT | Updated 06/02/2015 10:59 GMT

The charity and wider voluntary and community sector faces many challenges, most of which originate externally. However, I do fear that an unfortunate proportion (hopefully not too large a proportion)of these challenges are self-generated, and of these, it seems to me that far too many stem from within these organisations' executive and trustee leadership teams.

I see too much timidity; too much retreating to comfort zones (presuming that people have ever dared to leave the comfort of the nest); too little appetite to be entrepreneurial and take some calculated risks, or conversely, too much naivety such that risks are taken on which cannot be managed and/or are far too damaging; too much holding on to the past and not being ready to break new ground; and too little constructive tension within boards, and between boards and executives. Too often executives and staff have to escape their comfort nests too. Again whilst most do so regrettably not but not all do. These are fundamental cultural issues, which must be addressed if the sector is going to thrive and contribute to society's well-being. And sadly, the problems are frequently compounded by poor leadership at board and executive levels.

Similar issues can often occur in governor boards in schools and similar public and business sector boards.

Of course, there many examples of excellent practice, the right cultures and good leadership. There is no room for second class or sub-standard approaches. these attributes need to be the norm and not the exception; they need to be universal; and they need to be celebrated.

I sometimes wonder what a charity equivalent of OFSTED would find if it were to inspect charities and to grade their leadership capacity and performance. Let me hasten to say that I am most certainly not advocating such inspections, though there is absolutely no reason why a confident charity should not commission (or welcome) an independent review of its governance, leadership, use of resources and impact. Unfortunately, however, I fear that this 'charity OFSTED' would find far more examples of 'inadequate' and 'requires improvement', than it would award 'outstanding' or even 'good' grades.

The coming years will witness public policy, economic conditions and demographic and climatic changes placing ever greater demands on charities, and the wider voluntary and community sector. There are also likely to be increasing expectations placed on the sector by government and other agencies. The net result, like it or not, is that more transparency and accountability is going to be required. Charities, and the wider voluntary and community sector are going to have to convincingly demonstrate their impact to funders, procurers, donors, the public and their beneficiaries - and their value. The sector has to protect and promote its independence, as well as its right to have a voice on contemporary public policy. It has to argue with evidence and force that it requires a complimentary strong state with taxed-funded collectivism, and that the sector should never be a substitute for the state at national or local level.

Leaders within the sector have to understand this, and ensure that they respond to these challenges appropriately, as well as anchor their actions in the mission and values of the sector and their own organisations.

Without question, there is also a fundamental and vital core leadership role for the national sector bodies - who, must first and foremost, lead by example. They have to be ready to champion and, when necessary, protect their members and the wider sector. They must be ready to speak up and to campaign on behalf of the sector and its beneficiaries. Indeed, they must always advocate the interests of beneficiaries, ahead of institutions and themselves, as should every organisation in the sector. In particular, the national bodies have to be willing and able to challenge their members and the wider sector too. They should no more tolerate complacency, or inappropriate behaviours and performance in their members than within their own boards and organisations.

At every level, in every community of interest and in every place, the sector requires leadership that is bold, fearless, radical, values driven and entrepreneurial.

I see the leadership of trustees as being fundamental to the charity and voluntary sector - as vital as paid staff.

Specifically, trustee boards should determine strategy and be the champions of beneficiaries, promoting the latter's interests above all other considerations - which includes personal egos and staff (though they must be excellent and inclusive employers). Trustees should be ready to lead the evolution of their organisations. They must hold to account their executive teams, challenge them and support them - but also, when necessary, remove them. If trustees fail to show leadership in this way, they are not only be failing their organisations but also their beneficiaries and the reputation of the wider sector.

In 2015, all of us who are charity trustees have to step up to the mark - or step aside.