5 immediate improvements we can make in the charity sector

 

At #UKGC14 - my first outing in a vInspired t-shirt telling the Task Squad story (Photo by David Pearson)

At #UKGC14 – my first outing in a vInspired t-shirt telling the Task Squad story (Photo by David Pearson)

Friday marked the completion of my first 4 weeks working in a charity – ever.  In the course of my long and varied career I’ve so far worked in local and central government, been a freelance consultant, temped in a trade union, spent time in countless (and many pointless) private sector organisations, done a bit of quango-hopping and I’ve worked in or founded 5 start-ups.  On 20 January I joined Task Squad as its first ever CEO.  Task Squad is a brand new social innovation project from national well known volunteering charity vInspired.  Our mission is to get young people into paid employment by matching them to entry level micro working opportunities.

I thought 4 weeks in might be a good time to reflect upon and write down my experiences so far before I lose them.  It would also be good to get feedback from others at this early milestone – if I’m truthful I’m seeking reassurance that I’m progressing in the right direction and haven’t missed or misinterpreted anything.

Some of you will know me as a tech entrepreneur and one of Learning Pool’s co-founders.  Many, many people have asked me why I’ve chosen to work in a charity at this time instead of rushing off to start another private sector business.

The reality is that charities and social enterprises are doing a lot of innovative and interesting things.  In the past 4 weeks I’ve been introduced by Task Squad team members and funders to loads of wonderful projects bunged full of enthusiastic and motivated people who work hard and are as committed as any startup team.  What the projects I’ve been interacting with so far have in common is they’re all using tech for good and they’re all being run by teams of social entrepreneurs.

Anyway – it goes without saying that charities and social enterprises exist for good reasons and to do good things.  However, these are the 5 things that have bugged me a bit in my first month.

1.       There’s so much duplication within the sector.  What I mean is there’s so many projects doing what appears to me to be the same thing.  Government and the big funders are partially to blame by funding similar projects in isolation instead of forcing teams to merge and work together.  It would be useful if there was a matching service for small charities or social innovation projects that want to merge to save money and cover more ground.  Maybe there is?

2.       The entire sector is gripped by “accelerator” fever.  The prevalence of and participation in social accelerator programmes is reaching epidemic proportions.  Every which way I turn I uncover another one.  There has to be a better way for the sector to learn.  Also – who is paying all for all these growth accelerators and is that a good use of money.

3.       The working environment seems very formal and structured to me – even in a charity that’s relaxed and informal in many ways.  A lot of internal meetings take place and a lot of time is spent on governance type activities…what I describe as doing things the right way rather than doing the right things.  I wonder if there are ways to improve productivity whilst preserving integrity and just getting on and doing more “stuff”.

4.       Trustees appear to me to be underutilised by many charities and I don’t know why this is.  I’m a trustee of a couple of not for profit organisations.  I joined because I wanted to help them make a difference and they were looking for someone with my particular skill set.  I want to be useful.  I don’t want to be distant and see only the senior team at quarterly board meetings.  I’m sure this must work better in some places and I’d be interested in finding out who does this well and how they’ve made that happen.  Please send me any good examples you have of charities or not for profits who’ve got a great relationship with their trustees and who are getting the best out of them.

5.       Why isn’t there a central directory of all social funders and investors where they publish all their live funds?  This would make it easier for charities and social innovation projects to find and compare them and it would also significantly improve their dealflow.  Again – maybe there is and if so I would be grateful if someone can point me to it.

Apologies if I’ve dwelled upon too much of the negative in this first blog on this topic.  I don’t mean to be harsh as there’s so much good work happening generally and I personally feel completely elated to be working at Task Squad.  My interest is in helping everyone help each other to cover more ground with the limited resources we all have at our disposal.

I need your comments more than ever.  Let’s get some conversations started!

3 comments

  1. Hi Mary

    Congratulations on your new role, and thanks for sharing your reflections. Your list compelled me to respond!

    In relation to number 1 and your comments about funders I wholeheartedly agree. This replicates right through the system to the really tiny grants which are made (or at least used to be) to community groups. The ways that people have traditionally participated has created closed groups, with power often held by one to two individuals in each small group, and funding arrangements have enabled this. I’m not convinced that merging is the only response, I’d like to see more open ways of working, with blurred and permeable organisational boundaries. However while funders and the funded continue to pretend that they can demonstrate outcomes attributable only or mainly to their own actions (rather than acknowledging complex systems) then I think duplication of effort will continue.

    Regarding “accelerator fever”, I suggest that while that might be the case for national organisations in our sector, and few local ones who are exposed to it, the vast majority of charities (or branches of charities) working at local levels are slogging on with the day job while all this talk whips around in conversations they aren’t part of. Like you I have concerns about the investment in accelerators, are they reliant on loans, and if so, who stands to gain? Indy Johar has interesting things to say (and shares a lot) about investment, I can’t find anything hugely pertinent right now, but this is a nice short piece: https://medium.com/field-notes/bf99b2f41248

    Number 3. Couldn’t agree more. Liam Barrington Bush (@hackofalltrades) has written a whole book about this called Anarchists in the Boardroom and is writing about a #morelikepeople approach advocated in the book here: http://www.morelikepeople.org.
    As a CEO you will be more involved in governance type discussions than probably most of your staff, I’d love to see you disrupt this and write about it. There must be loads of CEOs out there with the skills to get and do great things who feel their hands are tied by the need to do the governance thing. Maybe it suits some of them to not be doing stuff. Maybe that’s how it ended up this way.

    I think what you’ve described in number 4 is a difficult conversation. I too have joined boards to be useful, and completely agree that trustees are under-utilised. However (for some good reasons I think) a divide between the strategic role of trustees and the operations of an organisation is maintained in many organisations. I have observed from the board table how damaging it can be when trustees wade in to operations and upset staff and the work of the organisation. I have also chaired a charity through a 6 month period when we had no chief exec, so I had to step over that line and take on operational responsibilities – and then negotiate with an incoming chief exec what stepping back would look like. Thankfully it was very mature conversation and a process which I think we navigated well. I think generally many of us just rather hopeless at and lack experience of co-designing, co-producing, whatever you want to call it, so we don’t as staff immediately think ‘oh, Jayne on our board would be useful to bring in here’. We look around our colleagues and think ‘I’ll bring those two in on this, they can help to get this job done well’. I’ve probably done that 5 times this week, and not once did I even stop to think about trustees. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t confidently write a list of the names of our trustees – which in itself suggests that the opportunities for board and staff interaction and relationship can be very sparse, and often focused around strategic planning and accountability – not working together. Sadly not a good example to share!

    I think re. 5 we can circle back to 1. There will be all sorts of people paid at local, perhaps regional and (I imagine) national levels to find and draw together that sort of information, tailored to be pertinent to their organisation or groups they support (in the case of infrastructure organisations). The sooner we embrace Open ways of working the better. Imagine the resources we could deploy elsewhere!

    Thanks for starting the conversation, I look forward to hearing what other people think.
    Lorna

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  2. Thank you so much for your very useful comments Lorna which I’m sure other readers of & visitors to this blog will find as useful as I have. Thanks also for the pointers that I’ll certainly follow up on. Funny you should mention Indy Johar – I’ve contacted him already & we are due to get together very soon.

    I know that a lot of work must have happened on all of these things already – I’m in that place where my suggestions as a newbie will duplicate many of the ideas the sector has already tried to implement. I guess I’m just surprised that more hasn’t been achieved and I believe it’s down to the sheer numbers of organisations involved and the fragmented nature of the sector.

    Agree re the trustee crossover between non exec & operational and in the two trustee boards I’m on I’ve been very conscious not to do that. However, there has to be a way of making better use of trustees – especially when they have skills that are in short supply, eye wateringly expensive to buy in, and when these are skills that the charity demanded at recruitment time – finance, legal, digital, sales, etc.

    Also – I should add that CEO is a grand title for presentation purposes – there are 3 of us right now in Task Squad. We’re a proper startup team!

    Thanks again Lorna for taking the time to write such a detailed response. Like you I look forward to what other people think.

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  3. Mary,

    Glad that all is going great with your new role.

    With regards to Number 5, I had dealings with GRANTfinder many, many moons ago. I appreciate that they charge for their services but it might be a good place to start if you have never come across them before.

    From their website:

    “GRANTfinder is the UK’s leading grants and policy database and includes details in excess of 8,000 funding opportunities. Our services include access to: a flexibly searchable database; Newsflash service; deadlines listing; and Research Help Desk.”

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