The Charity Catch 22

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

I was reading a Guardian article the other day on charity overheads, and was struck by some of the comments.

Charities…“, mused one commenter, “for me it’s not so much the money but how so many charities now behave more like multinational corporations“…

Charities” another decried, “almost always focus on mitigation not solution.”

Hmmm.

So what are we? Faceless executives getting rich on other people’s problems, while nothing ever changes? Or simple-minded do-gooders having a stab but not achieving much? Neither? Both?

As ever in life, cliché seems too simple…

It’s true that charities often don’t seem to make the kind of impact we’d like. And it’s also true that there are some large mega-charities run much like multi-national profit machines. But perhaps that’s just the Heller-esque Charity Catch 22?

On one hand

Charities are there to try to tackle the problems in society that governments or private individuals can’t, aren’t or won’t.

And barring some miraculous upturn in governmental efficiency or individual altruism, they probably will have to remain the only ones doing that for the foreseeable future.

And if those problems haven’t been easily solved yet by government or private individuals, they may well require a bit more work.

Maybe a bit of international, multi-discipline, joined-up thinking?

And not just a local bake sale?

But on the other hand

The reason charities often don’t tackle the larger, underlying problems of society is because of a short-termist donor obsession with results with minimal overheads.

If there’s a quick, cheap fix, that produces short-term results, this seems more attractive to a typical donor than investment in long-term change.

And when charities do try to invest in the deeper, more intransigent problems, they often get criticised for their overheads being too high.

So.

If we try for cheap and cheerful, we get criticised for short-termism. And if we try for long-term impact, we get accused of being corporate fat cats. But what can charities do to escape the old Catch 22?

1. Transparency

Trust is key to the life of any charity. And transparency is key to gain the trust of your donors.

Transparency comes in many forms.

Transparency in a charity’s income and expenditure will help build their confidence for continued giving. If they know how you are spending their money, they are more likely to give again.

Transparency in your HR or ethical practices can demonstrate your committment to your people and supply chains.

And transparency can be as simple as a well-designed church notice board, a helpful website; or a dynamic Annual Report.

2. Accountability

Make sure your charity has critical friends.

Having access to honest, penetrating constructive criticism on what you are doing is essential to continue to tread the line between short-termism and corporatism.

I have personally really benefitted from engaging with a few trusted individuals who we work with who give me honest feedback on how the charity as a whole is doing.

Sometimes I can address their issues; sometimes I can’t.

But knowing that I am getting the unvarnished truth is a really helpful starting point to deal with the issues we face.

A great place to start is to ask for feedback from trusted beneficiaries, partners, service providers etc. One great tool I like for this is SurveyMonkey, which provide free and simple anonymised questionnaires that can be used to get feedback on how you are doing.

Why not start by asking your network what is service areas are important to them; and then design a confidential questionnaire asking for their feedback on your performance in these areas.

3. Leadership

Leadership is vitally important for any organisation, but charities especially.

Charities and the third sector are (or should be) led from the heart. But they should never be just ‘amateur’. Having a strong, inspiring leadership team at the helm of a charity is vital for effect the change that is so needed for some of the most entrenched problems society has.

And I would say that some of the best examples of leadership I have come across in both the private and third sectors have been ‘servant-hearted’ at root.

And that I think is the key.

Leadership needs to get the right balance between embodying the virtues that are expected of charities – compassion, understanding, empathy, humility – with the ability to lead strongly – efficient management, strong vision, decisive decision making etc.

But just remember, even if you get the balance right, there will always be critics. As a certain author once wrote:

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”…

If you have any thoughts, do get in touch: andrewkmackay[at]gmail.com.

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