A Looming Leadership Crisis?

Posted: 9th August 2016

Matthew Wilkley is a marketing and communications leader with extensive experience in the not-for-profit and private sectors, here he shares his thoughts on leadership within the charity sector.

2015 won’t go down as a vintage year for the UK voluntary sector. It is clear that the combined impact of under-regulated fundraising techniques, the perception of excessive executive pay, a lack of transparency and cases of poor governance have resulted in a lack of trust. 

How can charities rebuild this trust and reaffirm their vital position in UK society? A good place to start is leadership. I recently attended an event for the best 25 fundraisers under 35 in the UK, which was arranged by CivilSociety.co.uk. Amid the discussion of fundraising channels, events and future plans, a consistent theme was the concern about the lack of a robust, joined-up response to the challenges of 2015. Where was the reassurance from the larger charities or the rallying cry from sector bodies to let everyone know that action would be taken? And what consequences might this lack of assurance have?

There is a leadership crisis afoot in the charity sector. If it isn’t sorted out soon, the sector risks losing its next generation of leaders. 

Challenges for leadersKubler ross change curve

With so many uncertainties regarding regulation, income and the role of charities in society more generally, the key challenges for leaders will be to adapt, survive and ultimately grow.

Last year came as a shock to most charities. The Kubler-Ross model is useful to help explain the stages that the sector is going through. The shock and resulting denial has now largely passed with most charities now accepting that they are in a new world. There is bound to be frustration and depression about this, particularly among those that are governed and managed very well – the feeling that ‘a few have ruined it for the rest of us’. However, 2016 has seen the roots of change and some charities are beginning to climb the curve as they begin to experiment with new systems and a different culture. 

Eight steps for charity change

There are several stages of change, as outlined by leadership and change academic Dr. John Kotter, that charity leaders will need to navigate in order to reach the phase of continued growth and trust.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency

Charity leaders need to demonstrate that they are aware that some things need to be fixed, and quickly. This extends to putting pressure on the new Fundraising Regulator as well as communicating to supporters and the media to demonstrate that change is afoot.

Thorough research and analysis is required in order to demonstrate what the UK would look like without its charities. The emotional arguments are well communicated via charity advertising but the economic argument needs to be articulated much more clearly. At Centrepoint, for example, Pro Bono Economics helped us to establish that for every £1 we spend, we save the public purse £2.40. The wider voluntary sector ought to be able to do the same.

  1. Form a powerful coalition

This applies at an organisational and sector-wide level. Within organisations, leaders need to identify stakeholders who hold influence, if not hierarchical power. Trust is critical and key influencers within an organisation can block change just as easily as facilitating it.

More widely speaking, with question marks over the effectiveness of some sector bodies, there is the need for a strong voice to represent the sector, which is well known, independent and respected. Just as other industries have Chartered Institutes, one or more bodies with chartered status could help to gain wider recognition more quickly and would be able to fund effective communication with the public.   

  1. Create a vision

Again, this is necessary at both levels. As Dan Pallotta explains in his TED talk, charities are required to work to short-term (usually annual) timescales, which hinder long-term planning and visions. Crucially, this vision needs to include clear milestones rather than just a vague strapline.

At a wider level, we need a blueprint for the sector’s role in the UK over the next 25 years and beyond. This should include the justification for new fundraising methods, the demonstration of impact, pioneering technology and attracting the best people – both paid and voluntary.

  1. Communicate the vision

Where are we going? What will the world look like when we get there? Who will benefit? What is the image or headline we want people to remember? What are the tangible differences?

All of these questions should be considered, as well as many more than there is time for here. For these questions to be answered and communicated properly, charities need to invest more in their communications; include their comms teams earlier and ensure that there are communications professionals at the top of the organisation (including the board).

  1. Empower others

‘Others’ means everyone. From volunteers, to donors, part-time staff and board members, everyone needs to be empowered to drive change. Too often, important projects are tagged on to business as usual. If the charity/sector is serious about change, it needs to ensure it has the necessary resource and/or prioritise accordingly.

This could mean giving teams ‘permission’ to adapt to the new fundraising regulations, for example, by reducing short-term fundraising targets because it will build trust (and income) in the long-term.

From a Governance point of view, paid trusteeships or employee board members should be considered. Change requires collaboration and time. A hybrid model would empower both voluntary and paid board members to demonstrate a united front and consider any changes more thoroughly.

  1. Plan for and create short-term wins        

An obvious quick-win for the sector could be an annual review which measures the overall performance of UK charities – income, impact, complaints etc. – which is briefed clearly to the media.

Another relatively short-term win is the adaptation of technology. Digital solutions aren’t now as expensive as they once were and there is clearly an appetite for it as, according to nfpSynergy, 77 per cent of charities feel that greater investment in digital technology could increase their fundraising return, while 70 per cent think it will improve communications.

  1. Consolidate improvements

Short-term wins should be celebrated and followed up with longer-term projects, according to Kotter. With the likely continued decrease in government funding, I would recommend that charity leaders should reinvest short-term increases in income to ensure long-term stability. For example, Legacy Foresight predicts that the legacy giving will grow by c.£1bn in the UK between 2020 and 2030 and donations from high net worth individuals are also forecast to increase (according to Key Note), meaning that early investment in areas like these could provide the funding to achieve the vision.

  1. Institutionalise changes

The final stage is to become the norm. This will inevitably result in turnover at most organisations with some staff unwilling to change. Although this could mean lost experience and knowledge, it is also an opportunity to invest in new people who are better equipped to deliver the charity’s vision in the long-term.

What crisis?

If you’re thinking that this sounds straightforward enough, the expected response would be ‘it’s easier said than done’. However, if some of these changes don’t start to happen (or at least be planned) soon, the sector faces the prospect of losing the next generation of leaders. Why should we stay if our organisations aren’t responding to these challenges?


This article originally appeared in Fundraising Magazine, July 2016 (www.civilsociety.co.uk)

Matthew Wilkley is a marketing and communications leader with extensive experience in the not-for-profit and private sectors. He led the marketing function for a prominent management consultancy, securing the largest ever youth work training programme in the UK, before moving into the voluntary sector. At Crimestoppers, he launched the brand and website, Fearless, which encourages young people to give information about crime anonymously.

He joined Centrepoint in 2010, establishing its first marketing and communications department. This function has grown from three staff to 20 with income rising to £8.5m, which funds support for over 9,000 homeless young people a year. This includes direct marketing, digital, data and insight, PR, campaigning and brand awareness. Media coverage is now worth over £10m a year, which is supported by partnerships with industry-leading agencies such as Ogilvy, MediaCom and Red Consultancy.

Matthew also leads the royal liaison with Kensington Palace regarding Centrepoint’s patron, HRH The Duke of Cambridge. As part of this role, he founded the Charities Forum Communications Group for charities that benefit from the patronage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.

He was awarded the Cranfield Trust MBA Scholarship in 2015 and named as one of the Top 25 Fundraisers Under 35 by Civil Society magazine in 2016.