Charity is still a business and it needs to succeed

Date: 02 Mar 2016

Bumblebee Design

Claire Horton,CEO, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home says a charity CEO needs to hold themselves to the highest standards, be honest, open and very transparent.

What are the basics that need to be in place to run a charity well?

I don’t believe the requirements for a successful charity are significantly different to business. The same principles and legal compliance rules still apply.  Whether you’re a large or a small charity you need to manage the money and be very transparent in doing so given its donor and public money we’re using.  The organisation needs to operate efficiently and effectively and we have the same IT headaches, H&S, HR, legal and financial compliance requirements. Many of us have multiple properties, facilities, teams and projects operating in remote locations and all of those have to be managed and fit for purpose – and of course, we need to satisfy a board (in this case trustees with no interest in taking any financial return for themselves) who should be meticulous in how they govern the strategic direction and oversee the delivery of the charity’s organisational objectives. Formal budgeting, business planning and measuring performance against targets really is crucial and if charities fall short, we answer to a regulator and often the media or an angry public.

What are your tips for leadership success?

Anyone who wants their organisation to succeed and be the best it can be,  has to take people with them, inspire ambition and drive passion yet be clear that as lovely as everyone might be, this is still a business and it needs to succeed. Push always for continuous improvement, empower your people to take the hard as well as easy decisions, take calculated risks when necessary and trust them to strive always to do the right thing.  Be demanding but be fair. Hold yourself to the highest standards; be honest, open and very, very transparent. Excite and motivate your people with a clear vision and help them understand that each and every day they too are truly making a difference, no matter what role they work in. So few of us get the chance to love what we do, to get up every day being excited about where we work and what we are achieving and not everyone’s job gives them the ability or opportunity to leave a legacy or totally change the world (or a bit of it at least) but working in charities does. A good leader communicates that – it’s hard to resist such a rallying cry and then not do a good job.

Do you review your services for effectiveness, if so, how often and what methods are used?

We review pretty much everything all the time. In our growing and continually developing organisation, we operate a “test and learn” approach so that when we trial new initiatives, we measure its success against projections and expectations and refine accordingly for better success next time. We manage risk carefully and operate a ‘Risk Register’ that we view very much as a living document. It’s reviewed every quarter. Of course we run an annual business planning and budgeting round where departments review their progress against the organisational strategic plan, determine their priorities for the coming year and set their work plans against those. We measure all sorts and have operational and service KPI’s we watch very closely. User feedback is vital for us and especially with our external community engagement projects we need to be clear that we are delivering value. Impact reporting is key for charities for all sorts of reasons not least to help funders assess the impact of grants and financial support they might give and for the charity themselves to assess the success of the services on the ground. At Battersea we have multiple data sets around animals, people and the business but our closest scrutiny is always focussed on the animals themselves to ensure we are doing the right things for the dogs and cats whose lives we have in our hands.

Is fundraising the biggest issue?

Actually right now, it is one of the biggest considerations for all charities. Simply put, if we are to succeed in our charitable purposes, then we need the money to do it. Given the last eight months has seen charities take something of a pounding from the media about fundraising practices and management of donor data, it is clear that the sector has some sorting out to do and that we need to be even better in communicating with our donors and the wider public than we have. The challenge is twofold – charities need to ensure internal systems and data management processes are robust and that donor relationships and preferences are managed carefully and respectfully and we need to be transparent about how we fundraise, manage our costs well and demonstrate the impact for our beneficiaries. There’s no question about it, charities large or small, could not exist without the generosity of the public and supporters and our world both locally and globally would be a very sorry place indeed. Just imagine for a moment there were no local hospices, children’s hospitals, community groups, charities supporting young people, tackling homelessness, disability and poverty, international aid or disaster. Imagine no Cancer Research, British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, Save the Children, Red Cross, Salvation Army, RSPCA, Guide Dogs, Samaritans, Age UK, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home –  what kind of a society would we live in then?   

What mistakes are made by charities that could easily be rectified?

Methods of communication, levels and tones of message are vital to get right and not everyone does. Talking up or down to donors is always unacceptable. I have a saying that I quote frequently and that’s, “credit your audience with the intelligence they deserve”. Not everyone is online and not everyone wants to a phone call or a letter and therefore charities need to better recognise the changing ways donors and supporters want to hear from us and how they consume their media. Not looking at how online and digital can be used to improve engagement and indeed income generation is a mistake – we should all be embracing innovation and thinking differently about how we can make events, communication materials, service delivery and activities best work for us and those we are aiming them at.

Which matters most? A good brand, creating impact with your charity’s work or ethics?

Delivering good value, high impact and a quality and ethical service that make a difference for our users, are the most important things for any of us. We are here to do important work and help effect change. That said we can do that even better if we have a strong identity, clear mission and messaging that communicates effectively and that’s where a good brand can really help. We all have brands and every charity, large or small should be conscious about how they develop theirs – it shapes who we are, how we work and how and who, we engage and ultimately, it affects how we are seen and supported. Growing a brand, developing trust and loyalty isn’t easy. It requires care, attention, planning and consistency of application. Once established a strong brand is trusted and supported and can then grow – as consumers, we all know what we like and who and what we support and in whatever area of life it is, be it food, drink, hotels, holidays, cars or charitable giving, we make our choices based on our experience of particular brands. Once established, the most important thing is to cherish and protect your brand – keep it safe from harm and bad practice and always deliver what you promise and aspire to.

Who are your role models?

In my role, I meet and work alongside some of the finest charity, public sector and business leaders there are. I am spoilt for choice. So rather than name anyone in particular I’ll share what sorts of people inspire me. I’m drawn to strong leaders who are clear about what they are seeking to achieve for their organisations and wider society. I like open, honest and passionate people who can stand back and look at the bigger picture, rather than just their own organisations. More in charities and public life perhaps than in business, there are possibilities for collaborations and partnerships that we should all be seeking to embrace. I have seen some of the biggest societal changes occur when clever people, with no ego come together and roll their sleeves up. Great communicators are inspiring – they draw people in, sell a vision for making the world a better place and make incredible things happen almost effortlessly.


Citywealth top ten charity CEO’s 2016

Chosen for their gravitas, impact, leadership, fiscal competence, brand and ethics.

Paul Breckell, CEO, Action on Hearing Loss

Henny Braund, CEO, Anthony Nolan

Claire Horton, CEO, Battersea Cats and Dogs

Gillian Guy, CEO, Citizens’ Advice

Rob Williamson, CEO, Community Foundation, Tyne and Wear 

Debra Allcock Tyler, CEO, DSC -Directory of Social Change

Petra Ingram, CEO, The Brooke

Robert Robson, CEO, The Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity

Simon Hopkins, CEO, Turn2us

David Nussbaum, CEO, WWF UK

Also recommended…

Paul Farmer, CEO, Mind