David Holmes CBE, CEO Family Action (originally published in Outlook edition 64, summer 2015)

One of the great privileges of leading a charity is that every working day is different. In consequence, there is no possibility of ever being bored!

I am writing this article on leadership after 10 years as a Chief Executive or Chair of four different charities in our sector but I certainly do not claim to have all of the answers. For me, successful charity leadership means the ability to keep working out what to focus on, either within our charities or within the world in which we operate, at any single point in time irrespective of what the diary or the to do list says needs to be done. It is the ability to move quickly from issue to issue making decisions with confidence or knowing when to pause, reflect and sometimes change direction completely.

I think good charity leaders have always had to live on their wits a bit.  Our much-loved charities are continuously being buffeted by so many different sources of pressure. Shall I list a few that come to mind?

  • Huge and growing demand for our services;
  • Deeply uncertain funding;
  • The demands of the tendering machine;
  • The need to diversify our income – learning new ways of sourcing and securing funds;
  • A difficult economic climate for publicly funded services;
  • Policies that impact unfavourably on our service users;
  • Lack of reserves;
  • Historic pension deficits;
  • Ever-present safeguarding risk;
  • The conundrum of when and how best to invest in modernising internal systems and infrastructure when money is so tight:
  • The need to differentiate ourselves from other charities operating in the same sphere;
  • Competing with those same charities for scarce resources;
  • The need to innovate, build new partnerships and measure impact whilst retaining existing services, ensuring service quality and managing stakeholder relationships;
  • Finding the time and resources to campaign; and of course
  • Managing the charity well and being the best employer that you can.

“So what’s new?” I hear you say. And is it really any harder being a leader in the charity sector than anywhere else at the moment?

Well I can’t answer that one, but I do know that over the last twelve months I’ve had to deal with all of the following at Family Action often more than once:

  • Agreeing and implementing substantial reductions to contracted services because of budget-driven cuts by local authorities;
  • Seeing high-performing services close completely or be taken back in-house by local authorities in order to save money;
  • Bidding for a service where decisions are to be made 60%, 80% or even 100% on price, rather than on quality;
  • Working very hard to win a range of footholds on preferred provider frameworks without knowing whether any actual work will be forthcoming;
  • Working equally hard to win services which are ‘spot purchase’ – thereby winning work which is a challenge to budget and to staff as demand may fluctuate;
  • Being unable to bid for a service because the financial risk being imposed by the commissioner (TUPE, pensions, Payment by Results etc.) was just too much for us; and
  • Winning a tendered service but then having to walk away from it when previously undisclosed TUPE risk became clearer.

It’s sink or swim at the moment so in Family Action we’re all swimming as fast as we can, and in the same direction! That is why over the last twelve months we have focused very hard on retaining the services we already have whilst also:

  • Developing and implementing an income diversification strategy;
  • Launching a sales team staffed by highly experienced operational managers familiar with our services to help us sell our services directly;
  • Setting up a traded services subsidiary to help us trade our services and explore new markets;
  • Growing our fundraising team;
  • Investing in innovation and new ideas development;
  • Investing in the development of our first proposition for the social investment market;
  • Developing a range of new strategic partnerships both within our sector and in allied sectors; and
  • Investing in the development of a fully thought through mergers and acquisitions strategy.

Our learning is that we need to try all of these different approaches if we are to give ourselves the best chance of success in an uncertain and unpredictable environment. Family Action grew its turnover by 10% in each of the last two financial years but we know that this year is going to be even harder.  

So how do we raise our game further in the light of all these challenges?

I am no leadership theorist but I offer the following thoughts about approaches to leadership that have worked for me in the past. I hope some of them resonate with you as we all brace ourselves to face the challenges ahead.  

For me, Values based leadership is key. If your organisation has clear values and really lives them then it sets the tone for the whole organisation. Family Action's values (Can Do, Excellence, Mutual Respect, People Focus) were refreshed recently and really work for us. We recruit against these, appraise staff against them, base our staff recognition awards on them, we even name our meeting rooms after them. They are an intrinsic part of who we are.

You must be able to lead the creation of a compelling vision for your organisation. And then you need to have the energy to deliver that vision and the humility to change or improve it if it turns out to be wrong in parts or incomplete.

High standards really matter. Lead by example in terms of effort and recognise and celebrate others who achieve high standards too.

Recognise that you need everyone in the organisation to be facing the same way if you really want your organisation to succeed. Be clear that organisational goals and objectives are a shared endeavour and that everyone in the organisation, whatever their level or job title, has a vital role to play in your organisation's success. Believe in your staff and they will believe in you.

Be transparent. Talk to your staff about hard times for your organisation. Be clear with them where the money comes from and how it is spent. Be honest when hard choices have to be made. But don't let the creativity dry up. Encourage your staff to find solutions when times are hard and listen to and act on their good ideas.

Be an entrepreneur.  Have ideas, value ideas, look across your organisation for the next big thing and free up the time and energy to think those ideas through.

Be flexible.  In the current climate we need our organisations to be agile and to be able to change course quickly if needed.

Be a visible leader.  People need to see you and to know that you care just as much as they do.

Be resilient.  Don’t despair when things go wrong.  Just pick yourself up and keep going.

Be practical.  When things are difficult do keep an open mind about what you can change – i.e. a greater focus on staff well being, changes to the physical environment or by offering more flexible working. Show your staff that you care about them and that you are all in it together.

In conclusion, leadership in the charity sector at the moment is not for the faint-hearted but I still love coming into work every day absolutely believing in the difference that Family Action’s services make to the lives of vulnerable children and families across the country.

I wish you luck in your own journeys to find the right way forward for your charities in these uncertain times.  Lead, but lead with flexibility and with your head and your heart.