How to lead your charity through change summarised tips:

  • Be clear what you want to achieve, both in the short and long term
  • Focus on being financially and operationally fit for purpose
  • Look for the positives gained from new ways of working – and retain them
  • Embrace the opportunity to adapt and innovate
  • Keep the needs of beneficiaries and supporters to the fore

The challenge of guiding a charity through the Covid-19 crisis and beyond brings into acute focus the key principles of leadership needed through any period of change. Clarity around what an organisation is trying to achieve, supported by robust governance, is paramount. 

The Charity Governance Code recommends that every charity is headed by an effective board that provides strategic leadership in line with the charity’s aims and values:

“Strong and effective leadership helps the charity adopt an appropriate strategy for effectively delivering its aims. It also sets the tone for the charity, including its vision, values and reputation.”

Therefore, while charities might consider repurposing to ensure they remain impactful and relevant, they should not forget the importance of why they exist.

Alex Skailes, director at Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness, argues that charity boards and leaders need to have absolute clarity of vision, maintain an unwavering focus on the unique contribution their organisation can make, and concentrate on their charitable purposes:

“Think about the best interests of the beneficiaries and services users rather than the best interests of the organisation – both now and longer term.”

“Ensure that the direction of travel, particularly in the short to medium-term, is understood and that you’ve got an eye on the long term, because ultimately this is all about remaining fit for purpose,” agrees Neil Poynton, Head of Charities at CAF.

Charities that are already well-managed will be best-placed to respond to the crisis, but it is important that they can identify the things they know they do well so that they can continue with them.

Other considerations include:

  • Trustees asking the key questions to help them survive financially. Penny Wilson, Chief Executive at trustee recruitment organisation Getting on Board, suggests: How do we save as much as we can? Is it time to close or to merge? Which of our services are essential, and which can be lost? Where can we cut costs and find income? How much of our reserves can we use up? How can we deliver services in a different way? What can we do now to make sure the charity is in the best shape after the crisis?
  • Investing time in strengthening governance and leadership – charities with diverse boards and a strong mix of appropriate skills and expertise will fare better than those which do not.
  • Communicating and listening to staff and volunteers. Just as in normal times, people are an organisation’s prime asset. Use all of the technology that’s available to meet the challenge of physical distancing. Utilise skill sets, encourage and motivate staff and volunteers. There may be a need to rebuild team culture after remote working, furloughing or redundancies.
  • Taking advantage of the plethora of free information and resources available on the websites of the umbrella organisations including NCVO, CFG, IoF and Acevo. Use our Covid-19 hub, the Charity Commission’s guidance, and Civil Society Media. Specialist charity banks, lawyers, accountants, and fund managers have also produced dedicated content. It is important to maintain relationships with professional advisers and keep the dialogue open.

Neil Poynton says that identifying and then drawing on the positives from this extremely difficult period could reap real benefit.

“There will be lots of things that went well, such as efficiency gains and new ways of operating, including remote working facilitated by technology. Don’t let them fall by the wayside and make sure they become the norm.”

The crisis presents a real opportunity for change, at a speed driven by the external environment. Charity leaders should embrace, and be flexible about, innovation, and be prepared to adapt.

Crucially, they need to make sure that what is being done is articulated and understood internally. As Alex Skailes says, “the challenge for leaders is how to carry others with them, at a pace such that they can take advantage of these opportunities.”

Ultimately, the charities that will be best placed to survive and thrive are ones that present a really powerful case for support.

Neil Poynton concludes: “Make it as compelling as you possibly can. It might be that your case needs to adapt in the short term and then revert back to your long-term objectives. But always think about your impact, and never lose sight of donors and supporters - what they do for you – and their relevance to all of what you do.”

Ben May is the Charities Marketing Manager at CAF. With over 10 years' experience in the not-for-profit sector, Ben is committed to boosting the impact of charities globally. Find him on LinkedIn.

Survive. Adapt. Thrive.

Explore more actions to survive, tools to adapt and strategies to thrive during and after the Covid-19 crisis. Use the links below or get an overview of the resources available now

How charities are adapting to Covid-19

Susan Pinkney shares our research into the ways charities are innovating (3 min watch).

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Collaborating with other charities

Michael Mapstone on why charities should consider working with others (5 min watch).

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Nailing and communicating your mission statement

Beth Clarke on how to get your mission across to donors (5 min watch).

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