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Charity Leadership - a distinctive calling?

One of the things that has been most welcome during these challenging times has been lecturing weekly – face to face with real human beings! As I’ve spent time introducing principles of governance as part of an MA in Charity Management, I have reflected on some of the challenges facing charity leaders as we seek to educate and develop ourselves professionally.

Charities exhibit particular characteristics that make leading and managing them a distinctive undertaking – different in important ways from equivalent roles within the commercial world or public sector. Leaders must integrate mission and strategy towards serving beneficiaries with the need to generate income from a range of sources. This results in a far greater complexity of relationships between stakeholders that include beneficiaries, donors, funders, staff, volunteers, partner organisations etc. As a result, charity leaders need to possess a high tolerance for ambiguity and tremendous skills of negotiation and compromise as they seek to manage potentially conflicting targets relating to financial results and social impact.

Charities also face a level of scrutiny and regulation considerably more demanding than other sectors. Charity Commission guidance rightly requires trustee boards to pay as much attention to the ways in which decisions are taken and recorded, as the actual decisions themselves. As stewards rather than owners they cannot take inappropriate gambles with financial or other resources, nor cut deals or establish partnerships that may either be outside of the charity’s purposes, or expose it to excessive risk – particularly of reputational loss. For volunteer trustee boards to oversee organisations that have to comply with charity law and regulation over and above the laws to which all employers, property owners etc are subject is demanding. As a charity grows, so does the complexity and with it the reliance on a skilled and knowledgeable management team that is capable of ensuring that across its operations activities and programmes take place in ways that deliver maximum impact to beneficiaries, whilst complying with all aspects of the relevant statutory framework.

Many operations utilise technical skills and qualifications that are not unique to charities – the processing of financial transactions, management of human resources, and provision of IT systems are largely universal, for example. However, the range of stakeholders and potential involvement of a large number of volunteers, many of whom are deeply committed to the cause, often creates the need for a more empathetic or sensitive approach within charities. Leaders and managers need to be aware of and possess these skills if they are going to engender them within teams, and also if they are going to provide high quality, appropriate input and support to the trustees who carry ultimate responsibility.

Charities have much to learn from outside their immediate peer group, particularly from the rigours of the commercial world. To analyse and sift this, however, requires a fundamental understanding of the particular characteristics of charities which itself can best be developed by a focus on the nature of charities themselves and the competing demands and objectives that they have to balance.


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