Five Things Every Modern Charity Leader Should Master

How To. . .
Five Things Every Modern Charity Leader Should Master

What does it take to run a growing charity or other not-for-profit organisation?  Actually, there’s no one answer. But here are my top tips and advice, whether you are a new senior manager or a seasoned pro.

  1. Accountability and Transparency
  2. Know the Why
  3. Leadership by Consent
  4. Values-driven Strategic Thinking
  5. Effective Data Management


1. Accountability and Transparency

These days there is only one way to build trust inside and outside the organisation, and that is to embrace accountability and transparency.

A charity needs to be open in its work. Any organisation in receipt of public money has to be accountable about its public benefit, and it also has to meet its obligations to make critical data about its organisation available.

Nowadays we often feel under scrutiny from commissioners and funders, from the media and the general public. But we have to look beyond that. We have to learn to use accountability and transparency on our own terms, finding ever new ways to measure impact and look to focusing the minds of funders and commissioners on the unique values of our sector.

Within our organisations as well, we should welcome the opportunities that accountability and transparency offer.

Transparency is emphatically not about sharing the details of every good and bad moment with staff members and volunteers.  As a leader, you are accountable for motivating and engaging your team to give their best.

However, what transparency provides is an opportunity to share your knowledge of wider issues, with the aim of using the diverse talents of your team for some effective brainstorming.  This is not about shifting accountability downwards, it’s about using transparency to get everyone on board the same journey. As a senior manager you must encourage participation, guide the discussion where appropriate, and help to summarise the conclusions into an action plan. Working openly gives everyone a chance to contribute to the way ahead, to make an investment in the organisation’s future, and to share the success.

Inside or outside our organisations, we charity leaders should have no fear of embracing accountability and transparency, we simply need to make it work for us.

2. Know the Why

I was working with a new charity recently, when the senior manager asked me to look over his business plan. Before I took it away, I asked him for the organisation’s mission statement.  He referred me to a page of goals, because in his view goals are what drives a charity. That should never be the case.

Every trustee board or nonprofit board is responsible for ensuring that its charity or nonprofit is clear about why it exists. Nailing your mission statement is not simply a paper exercise. It’s vital for doing two things:

  • it tells the world why what you’re doing matters
  • it leads your organisation to do what matters.

If your organisation’s mission statement is not fit for purpose, either because it’s out-of-date for where your organisation is today, or it’s too vague to be meaningful, then make it a priority to work on a new one.

A good mission statement will inform, focus and guide your organisation at every level. You cannot create a strategy without knowing the reason for your journey.

3. Leadership by Consent

The Information Age has prompted a necessary change in style for every business leader, including those working in the nonprofit and voluntary sector.

For most of the twentieth century, all the vital knowledge about an organisation would be held by the “bosses”, which gave them power to act without anything like the accountability we see today. They shared as much or as little with their workforce as they cared to.  Communications to staff and volunteers was largely one way, and always top-down.

Times have changed.  More detailed annual reports; social media forums and online feedbacks; 360o appraisals. Today, as never before, business leaders – including charity leaders – are accountable not just to their boards, but also to their service users, and to their staff and volunteers.  It is no longer enough to lead by right; to be successful, you must also now lead by consent.

Being a successful charity leader today requires an aptitude for influence and persuasion. It’s less and less about formal authority and orders. Get it right, and leadership by consent is rewarding for everyone.

4. Values-driven Strategic Thinking

The values debate is especially relevant in the current period of change for the nonprofit and voluntary sector.

We have to be clear about what makes us different from the public and private sectors. Our organisations have come under a lot of pressure in recent years, with the whole sector tainted by news stories of financial mismanagement, high CEO salaries and sex scandals linked to high profile UK charities. We hear calls from politicians for us to be more “business-like” and “professional”, with the implication to funders and commissioners that we are neither.

Charities should always act professionally. Running a professional organisation means having a clear strategy, robust processes, and tight financial controls.

You could argue that doing these three things is also business-like. But being business-like is the concern of the private sector, which by definition is driven by an overriding profit motive, and giving a good return to shareholders.  This doesn’t sit well with the nonprofit and voluntary sector, where the relationships between the charity and its stakeholders – donors, service users, staff and volunteers, and the community – are dramatically more complex and emotional.

The biggest threat to the future of charities comes from within our own sector.  From failing to focus clearly on values; from chasing funding that does not fit our values; from allowing values to be influenced by those outside the sector.

Our values are at the mercy of outside forces only if we allow them to be.  As a sector, we need to choose our own labels and be much better at arguing the case. Being professional and yet not business-like is the sector’s strength and not our weakness.

5. Effective Data Management

Given the limited resources in which many nonprofit and voluntary organisations operate, it’s no surprise that many small and medium-sized charities especially do not manage data well.  You may still be collecting some information manually, and inputting into one or more online data management systems. Duplication and out-of-date information are common problems.

Data is essential for an effective charity today. When collected, managed and used properly, data can help us to:

  • understand the needs of our users, the quality of our services, and the difference we are making to people’s lives. This will inform strategy, programme design, and resource allocation.
  • support staff in their professional development based on what works in project delivery.
  • report to funders, commissioners and policymakers—influencing their views and the way they fund.

The best charities are transforming data into wisdom and then turning that into action.  It is no longer a choice to learn about the Information Age tools which are now available to help you collect, organise and manage your data.

In today’s ever more challenging environment, securing the investment to collect and manage your organisation’s data, preferably using a single programme tailored to your specific needs, has to be a priority. 

I’ll cover each of the above topics in more detail in future articles. Sign up for our alerts to ensure you never miss a Boiling Frog blog post.

About the Author – Jenny Hopkins is  founder and content curator for The Boiling Frog. She also works as an adviser to small and medium-sized charities, specialising in strategy and business planning. She does voluntary work as a trustee/director for two charities.

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