Our third secret CEO shares their views on the sector’s hot topics. Thank you to everyone who submitted questions for them to answer.

How did you get your first CEO role? What was your journey? 

I spent just under 20 years in my first job in the sector. I was the seventh person to join the staff, and by the time I left  20 years later we had a thousand staff. The organisation grew and I grew with it.

I was lucky, in a sense, to move into new, more responsible roles, because the organisation needed its people to do that in order to sustain growth. 

I never intended to work in the charity sector – I studied fine art. After 20 years, I asked if the charity I worked for would release me for an academic year. They agreed and I did a degree by independent study to satisfy myself that I was actually intelligent and capable of doing other things. 

Having completed the degree, I went on to take a role that we would refer to these days as a COO (Chief Operating Officer) to support a CEO who had a very public profile. I was in that role for five years before getting my first CEO role. 

My first CEO role was fascinating and I oversaw a lot of change in the organisation. The thing I learned in that role was how much time a CEO spends working to sustain a board of trustees – don’t underestimate it!

In a world that’s constantly changing and shifting, how can charities be resilient?

This is a really interesting question because it suggests that constant change is new. I have been doing work with senior managers for many years about how to work on an assumption of constant change, because that, in fact, has always been the reality for the sector.

The trick is to expect the world to be changing. To plan on the basis of it changing rather than assume that the change you are making is going to be sustained. 

When we anticipate change in the charity sector, we often state that we must work to sustain the charity we’re working at. As far as I’m concerned what you actually have to do is regularly ask yourself whether your charity is still relevant. it’s not imperative to sustain a charity. Your charity hasn’t got a god-given right to be here!

How do you live and breathe your organisational values? 

Having worked for a lot of different charities now, I have developed an aversion to values. By which I mean, I do not like values that are listed on a wall as 5 words under the title, “our values.” You see them in the foyer, in the CEO’s office and they are completely and utterly meaningless in terms of having any impact on the ways in which people behave and the ways in which they do their work.

A little while ago I developed an alternative take on values, which I’ve called ‘operating principles’. Operating principles are basically values in action, and they are expressed as ways of behaving, working or being. 

Managers ask their teams to share evidence of working to these operating principles as part of their performance management reviews. 

In answer to the question – you get values to make sense to people by expressing them differently. 

How do you integrate finance with other directorates such as fundraising?

It seems to me that this is all about teamwork. Somebody in the organisation has to be really, really, financially literate and I don’t think that has to be the Chief Executive. 

I do think that the Chief Executive needs to be sufficiently financially literate to understand the broad picture and ask the right questions like:

  • How much have we got in reserves?
  • Have we got any unrestricted funds?
  • Which are the projects cause they are likely to go into deficit?

But in addition to that, all charities need somebody who is really, really on top of the financial details. That includes understanding the current financial picture but also what changes are coming around the corner. To do that, it’s essential that the finance lead is in good communication with fundraising and service provision leads to learn what’s likely to be ahead.

Does remote and hybrid working actually work?

I think it’s a really difficult one, because there are all sorts of good things about it. For example, remote and hybrid working make it possible for many more women to be working because of the flexibility of being able to be at home.

I think organisations have to work very, very hard to get a real sense of well-being, a sense of being collegiate and a commitment to the organisation when working remotely or in a hybride way. 

I think you still have to build in a lot of things that actually bring people together physically. 

Zoom team meetings do work up to a point, but if you’ve never met people in person, it can be difficult to get a sense of them. 

I think managing hybrid working is quite challenging. It’s much much more difficult than it was before Covid when everybody was in the office and I don’t have any easy answers other than saying that people must be willing to engage with their colleagues face to face, in person, up to a point.

I personally feel that being face to face leads to richer discussions, but who’s to say whether the outcome of a face to face discussion versus a Zoom discussion is better or worse, I don’t know. But I don’t get as much human satisfaction from Zoom. 

As the CEO, in a face-to-face situation there are a number of opportunities to communicate messages to people. It can be really difficult to do the same thing in a group Zoom meeting.

Loads of charities are finding it really hard to recruit. What do you think they could be doing differently to attract the best talent?

It’s very, very difficult and I don’t know what the problem is. Why has it come on relatively suddenly? It just seems interesting to me and I think we need to try and understand the driving factors. 

I think when it comes to areas like fundraising, trying to recruit, has always been difficult. I just think it’s very, very difficult to raise the money that you need to have or that you’d like to have and it’s very hard to find really, really expert people to help you do it. 

One of the things that I have started thinking about is how charities should approach training, so that the sector is growing its own talent. How can we use volunteering and apprenticeship schemes more effectively to attract people into the sector and nurture them into more senior roles? It may be that this is only feasible for organisations of a certain size, but it could be an important experiment. 

Do you think the sector has made progress on inclusion in general, and on anti-racism in particular?

I’ve seen a fair amount of progress in the sense that people are aware that you need to have diverse boards and diverse staff to be successful. 

I have a particular problem about the understanding of diversity. There is a tendency to only focus on those minorities that you can see, but not all forms of diversity are visible. 

One of the issues this leads to is that many charities can’t tell you how diverse they are because they are making that judgment at face value rather than through proper monitoring. The challenge of diversity is really tricky if you have no benchmark. 

To answer the question, I think quite a lot of charities are doing much better but there are also a lot that I’ve encountered who are finding it really hard because they don’t know they don’t know how to go about it.

I think there’s still a long way to go in understanding what it means to be an inclusive charity.

How are you approaching fundraising strategy and staffing with an impending recession?

I can only really answer that question from the perspective of the specific CEO role I’m in at the moment for a charity that is mainly funded via statutory contracts.

That said, I’ve been impressed by the evolution that grant making trusts are going through to release more unrestricted funding to charities. My advice to other charities in a similar position would be to go, find out who those trusts are and apply. Having the ability to be flexible about what you do with the income that you’ve got is enormously helpful. 

However, I do also fear for charities that are very dependent on individual donations because obviously people’s abilities to actually make those donations is going to be diminished. 

The answer for each organisation is going to be different depending on the work they do and how they currently raise money. 

The role of CEO encompasses, team leadership, strategy, finance, ops, governance fundraising and more. Which part do you find most challenging about the role and what advice would you give to aspiring CEOs?

It’s very, very important to recognise that nobody is going to be expert in every single one of those things, and it’s really important to be confident enough to say, “I’m really sorry, I don’t understand that, or you’re going to have to explain that to me better.”

The temptation is never, never to reveal weakness, because if you demonstrate some weakness somebody is going to notice, and oh, oh, dear, dear!

I think you have to be confident about what you know, and also about what you don’t know. Openness and honesty are really important.

What advice would I give? I have 3 pieces of advice to pass on to aspiring CEOs…

  • Trustees

Recognise the reality that engaging with a governing body is one of the most important parts of the role. It’s also really important to remember that trustees are volunteers. They are collectively your boss, but that isn’t their full time occupation. So you need to help them find value in exchange for giving their time – just like any other type of volunteering.

It’s important to make sure that everybody understands what individual trustees bring to the board and what they want to get out of it? 

  • Decision-making

Even though you won’t and can’t know everything, you often still have to make the final decision in tough situations. You also have to be prepared to operate at the horizon and take full responsibility for the consequences of the organisation’s decisions, whether you made them personally or not. 

  • Managing people

You have to take pleasure in managing people. In the charity world there are too many managers who don’t actually derive any satisfaction from helping people grow and develop.They become managers, because that was the next thing, the next promotion. But as a senior leader, if you don’t actually get pleasure out of growing and developing the people who work in the organisation, go and get another job, do something else.

Final word…

If you’re thinking about moving into a charity CEO role from inside or outside the charity sector because you desperately want to be able to change the world in some way I would say…

becoming a chief executive can be a way of trying to make that happen, but it’s a complicated response. You might actually find it more rewarding to focus on service delivery where you can see the direct impact of your work on people’s lives. 

Having said that, I have been reflecting on my long career in the sector. I know more now than I’ve ever known. Being a CEO is the best opportunity I can think of to share what I’ve learned. If you want to get into a Chief Executive role to share your knowledge, help others to grow and learn, take responsibility as a leader and recognise that you don’t know what you don’t know – this is the job for you.