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Can a charity change its spots?

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

This is the question I pose in the November issue of Charity Finance magazine.

Leading a charity is not simple. Objectives have to be met, whilst generating income, all with the complexity of relationships resulting from a wide range of stakeholders, many of them volunteers. Negotiation and compromise are required, with leaders needing to exhibit a high tolerance for ambiguity, whilst managing a double bottom line of financial results and social impact.

Many of you involved as leaders within charities will be crying “Welcome to my world!”

To cut through this, many charities would benefit from considering John Bryson’s ABCs of Strategic Planning:

A - Where is the organisation now?

B - Where does it want to be?

C - How is it going to get there?

Change management is concerned with question C – the decisions, processes and alterations required in order for the organisation to move from where it currently is to where it wants to be.

Third Sector organisations have been described as ‘coalitions of interests, held together by a range of shared objectives and interests’. Major change can put this coalition at risk, so a key part of managing strategic change is the need to keep all stakeholders on board, where leaders simultaneously lead and listen; actively adjusting in response to the continuously changing context.

Charity staff and volunteers tend to be personally invested in the organisation’s mission, so a climate for change is only created if they feel they are being listened to. The pace of any planned change is therefore vital, and it may be necessary to incorporate periods of ‘strategic waiting’ when a planned slowdown enables people to get used to new practices and approaches, whilst gathering themselves for the next step forward.

A massive barrier to change is internal inertia - the organisation’s unwillingness or inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Culture and established routines are particular causes of inertia, but Richard Rumelt has also described ‘inertia by proxy’ whereby a change is resisted because it would threaten an existing position, even though it’s clear that not changing robs the organisation of a greater impact. This is particularly likely in charities where staff, or for that matter trustees, can become closely associated with projects, groups of beneficiaries or even places.

Another barrier is entropy where the longer it exists the less efficiently run an organisation becomes and the less focused on its core reason for existence. There is always the danger that programmes, or indeed whole charities, begin to operate as an end in themselves, with the focus on self-perpetuation, rather than transforming the lives of their beneficiaries.

Of course, part of the purpose of the charity sector is to serve those in need without the same sorts of cost benefit analysis used by commercial enterprises, but services should be provided on that basis deliberately as part of the charity’s strategy – not simply because either nobody has worked out the costs or because it is a popular project. However, since many staff will be motivated by an element of service, leaders should encourage change, using hard and soft measures, by selling the increased or improved way in which the charity will serve its beneficiaries.

Communication and the opportunity for input are more important than ever. I have always remembered this response to a question from a leadership masterclass – “You have to tell the story over and over, hear the questions, respond, then tell the story again. Prioritise talking to those you know are most resistant and avoid attending just the things that are more attractive.”

All of this makes John Kotter’s 1995 model, shown below, for the management of strategic change, and his emphasis on effective pacing, still remarkably relevant to managing change in any organisation:

Kotter’s 8 Steps to Strategic Change




I love the fact that Kotter’s model demonstrates clearly that there are no shortcuts to effective change management. The starting point needs to be a clear and honest analysis of where the organisation is, plus an equally clear picture of where it wants to get to. This applies whether the intended change is wholesale, or affects only a small section of the charity’s work or activities.

The process by which is moves from the starting point to completion requires a logical step of pre-planned steps which take into account the culture of the charity and whatever specific barriers to change exist. One of those factors is the appropriate pace at which change can progress.


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