the loneliness of the small charity chief executive

Kicking off my new blog with a guest piece for the brilliant I Am Enterprises @theiamgroup

You wake at 5am, bleary eyed, from a troubled night, the alarm saving you from sinking back into sleep. You don’t feel rested today. Around 3am you were surreptitiously whispering into your phone’s audio recorder. Your partner heard you anyway, and so your work disrupted their sleep once again. Yes, that’s right – you were working. Adding to your to-do list – operational tasks you’ve remembered that slipped under the radar earlier on. An exciting idea for fundraising that you really must explore. A difficult staff appraisal to prepare for. Inspiration for solving a common problem a beneficiary told you about over coffee. Worrying about covering the budget without any statutory funding. Wondering how much more you can ask your heroic staff to take on, over and above the 45 hours a week they already work, for a salary that is modest to say the least. Wondering how you will cope with tomorrow’s challenges without a decent night’s sleep yet again, and feeling overwhelmed…

Yes, I feel your pain, because I’ve been there. I’ve been a new small charity Chief Executive and I’ve been a seasoned one – and I know it doesn’t feel much easier either way. Feeling overwhelmed can dampen all the passion in the world. Why is this peculiar to small charities? Because conventional organisation structure – Board, CEO, staff – applies to small charities too, but doesn’t fit. Four or five key, but junior, people staff the majority of small charities. So the small charity Chief Executive is also the Director of Finance. Director of HR too. And Director of Fundraising. Yes, and Service Director. Oh, and Facilities Manager and PA. And don’t forget they’re the Chief Executive, responsible for strategy, ambassadoring, leading and thinking – those exciting and wonderful aspects of the role that they rarely get time to do.

I know of small charity Chief Execs who literally work round the clock, sending emails at 1am on Monday morning, just to be able to keep up with a workload that is Herculean in breadth and volume. I know some live on the verge of breakdown. All Chief Executives, in any sector or organization, expect a heavy workload, but this is a real structural problem for which there seems to be no impetus to change. There’s no time for that, and perhaps there are appearances to keep up.

There are no peers for the small charity Chief Exec – no one within the organisation you can talk to for support. This is a long distance runner who carries a whole organisation on their back. Can this really be acceptable? And how does this segment of the wider sector find the time to fight back against the current charity-bashing trend (which could actually be one manifestation of a paradigm change for the sector, but that’s another blog!).

 Trustees of small charities can often be found feeling depleted too – they generally take a far more hands-on role than their colleagues in big organisations. But it is the Chief Executives who are paid to run the show, and – given the current structure – there’s a huge amount of pressure to perform. All of this usually with ever decreasing resources. Of course Chairs can and should be a strong source of support and partnership for the small charity Chief Exec, though in reality it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ll talk about working relationships in small charities more in a forthcoming blog.

97% of registered charities are defined as ‘small’ – that means there are up to 155,000 small charity Chief Execs in the UK (Small Charities Coalition, 2016). I have begun to wonder why this ill-fitting structure exists for the majority of the sector. I don’t have answers yet, but I hope to find them in partnership with sector leaders.

So I’ve taken the plunge and gone freelance to unleash my passion for supporting charity leaders and their teams. With a fellow former small charity Chief Exec (who calls herself a ‘reformed Chief Executive’) I’m setting up a peer support system for this dynamic and dedicated, but beleaguered group. We’re not sure exactly how it will look yet – we want your steer on that, but we know from our networks that it is much needed. We know that it will be a supportive group, but also an expert group that comes up with solutions to common problems. Hopefully we can work together to find support and innovations. Watch this space!

Jane Hudson Jones is CEO at Lotus Consultancy & Coaching:

Follow @jane_ceo

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