Effective Leadership in the Charity Sector

by | Sep 21, 2021 | Emma Willder

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Guest post by Fran Ferris-Ockwell

There is an ongoing challenge in the charity sector around recruiting and retaining the best leadership talent. The sector is gifted with some of the most talented, ethical, and driven people in the workforce. These are people who are committed to making an impact that positively benefits society. Despite this, retaining these leaders is a constant battle, which has been compounded by the pressures of Covid. A recent article in Third Sector Magazine indicated that nearly half of the leaders they surveyed had considered leaving the sector in response to the huge overwhelm caused by the pandemic. Burnout is rife. So what can charity boards do to encourage these leaders to stay?

Recognise how hard charity leadership is.

Leading a charity is incredibly difficult. Charity leaders are accountable to their beneficiaries, their staff, their boards, their donors and supporters, the public, and the additional regulatory accountability that comes with charity. Getting this balance right is a real tightrope. Sometimes it can feel that no matter what decision a leader makes, someone will be disappointed or frustrated. It is a very lonely job.

The last 18 months have shown just how resilient and skilled our charity leaders are. We have seen a sector-wide response to a global pandemic. Leaders have kept services running for beneficiaries, they have kept their staff safe, and they have kept the money coming in when most fundraising avenues dried up virtually overnight. Charity leaders deserve a medal for what they’ve managed to achieve during Covid.

It has been a difficult time for board members, too.

I have worked with several charity leaders who have found it difficult to let their board know what they need from them over the last eighteen months. There are lots of reasons for this. Firstly, and most obviously, we are in a global pandemic, and frankly, no one really knew what going to happen next. That aside, however, the sheer workload and level of additional pressure that arose overnight left most charity leaders running to stand still. Boards have, understandably, found it difficult to know what to do to help.

In normal circumstances, the best boards will be supportive and informed, but ultimately confident enough in their leadership that they do not need to become involved with day-to-day operations. In a crisis, however, things change a little. The pandemic was one of those situations. Common sense and teamwork were the order of the day.

The most effective boards were those who told charity leaders that their wellbeing mattered. They recognised that their leadership teams were steering the ship, and without them, the whole thing would likely sink. They took onerous, non-urgent, and superfluous tasks off their plate. They encouraged and permitted them to simply focus on keeping the ship afloat.

Charity leadership is challenging.

It requires mutual respect and cooperation, and a shared vision between the leadership team and the board. Covid has demonstrated that, when executed well, this relationship can be transformative and can keep the charity sector alive and thriving.

Charities would do well to reflect on how their leadership handled the pandemic. Many will, I hope, give themselves a well-deserved pat on the back. I hope board members will recognise and acknowledge the hard work and sacrifice of their leadership teams.

Leading a charity is very hard work, and the last eighteen months have been the final straw for many charity leaders. Those boards who recognise and learn from the incredible response of their leaders will, I hope, be able to encourage their leadership teams to stay.

You can find out more about Fran and the work she does in supporting leaders of purpose-driven organisations by visiting her website or connecting with her on LinkedIn

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