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Who will guide the charity sector through the age of disruption?

Who will guide the charity sector through the age of disruption?

Juliet Taylor, Partner and Head of Not for Profit Practice at GatenbySanderson – discusses the importance of truly effective in the era of increased scrutiny, ever declining resources and uncertain futures for the not-for-profit sectors.

It’s no secret that the charity and volunteer sector is under intense pressure. The spectacular failings of Kids Company a year ago put a spotlight on charities and how they are managed. The recent closure of 4Children demonstrates the increasing financial pressures charities face. It doesn’t end there – political, social and economic change is forcing charities to alter how they operate and engage with the public or stakeholders. Leadership in third sector organisations has never been more important, but who will lead charities in a period of disruption to help them thrive? And what are the characteristics that make a good leader for a modern charity?

Successful third sector leaders truly embrace disruption and the new reality that the sector faces. This helps create organisations that are more agile and adopt shorter horizons, while staying true to the organisational mission. Not-for-profit leaders require a set of key attributes, and the ability to match ambitions with resources, to help take third sector organisations into a new chapter of success and explore the exciting opportunities which lie ahead. We spoke to more than 50 chief executives and senior leaders of the charity sector to identify the pressing issues regarding the appointment of leaders who can help steer the third sector through this age of disruption.

Embrace disruption

Effective leaders embrace disruption and understand not all of the change is negative. Disruption also presents charities with great opportunities – to reach new audiences, connect with stakeholders in new ways and even create new revenue streams. And perhaps more importantly, charities can use today’s disruptive environment to address diversity – bringing in people with a diverse range of views, experience and backgrounds.

While it might not always be smooth sailing, modern leaders can measure their own success and judge the progress and performance of their organisation in the context of continual change. They are constantly balancing many moving parts, can spot opportunities and have the courage and judgement needed to respond to them.

Look forward to an uncertain future

Many of today’s charities are facing challenges and issues that could never have been conceived when the organisation was founded. Building high-performing organisations that deliver on their promises is challenging and requires leadership capability that goes beyond professional competence and technical skills. Managing the tensions amongst stakeholders where there are no straight lines, where expectations are huge and often changing, takes leaders who are aware of their own impact. They have personal resilience, commitment and courage to see things through while taking the people around them with them. These attributes are not innate. It has never been more important for the third sector to find and develop leaders who can be the best in this sector and that requires a real commitment to developing the leadership capability.

Collaboration and teamwork over dictatorship

If there is one lesson to be learned from the demise of Kids Company, it is that the onus for running an organisation can no longer rest on one person’s shoulders. Instead there must be a collective responsibility of the board, senior and the executive together.

A positive relationship between chair and chief executive is often the foundation of a good organisation and helps to withstand change and uncertainty. Consideration of personal and cultural fit, is equally important when appointing senior leaders. The chief executive can no longer be a great salesperson or financial controller alone. Modern executives are able to build, motivate and inspire teams. They have a higher level of emotional intelligence and vision to help inspire and keep the organisation moving forward.

Success lies in authenticity

In an era of increasing competition and constantly declining resources, the key to success lies in authenticity. Today’s charity chief executives are tasked with thinking innovatively about funding raising and financial management in an increasingly competitive environment. Modern leaders are able find ways to ensure future sustainability and growth while steadfastly staying true to their organisational mission. When seeking grants takes priority over the core organisational mission, it doesn’t take long for the mission to expand or change to match the grant requirements. By this time the organisation has strayed from its roots and the people it serves. Modern charity leaders need to balance these tasks with a powerful and visible commitment to their organisation’s purpose. They don’t deviate from it, whatever the temptation.

There is no crystal ball to help predict what the sector will look like in five or 10 years’ time. We can only hazard a guess looking at the state of the nation – political trends, the economy and the impact of a changing environment on organisations today. However, the thinking must start now. Success relies on being able to identify and address ongoing and upcoming threats, challenges and opportunities as they appear on the horizon. As part of this, leaders will embrace the future and at the same time stay true to their organisation’s mission to achieve their objectives. Those who do can help take the third sector into a new chapter and explore the exciting opportunities which lie ahead.


Juliet Taylor is Partner and Head of Not for Profit Practice at GatenbySanderson. She has 13 years’ experience of placing Chairs, Trustees and Non-executive Directors, Chief Executives and Directors with a wide range of organisations in the voluntary sector and Whitehall.


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