ZAP! Pioneering Change

Are small charity Chief Executives in crisis? If so, what does this tell us about the majority of the sector? In my last blog, I talked about traditional charity sector structure, and in particular how this may not be fit for purpose in the case of small charities.

The response to this has been tremendous, with many small charity CEOs making contact to tell me and Marina Pacheco, my partner in the ZAP! project, how strongly it resonated for them. Although we knew that we weren’t alone in our experiences, we had no idea just how big an issue this is.

We’ve come a long way since that last blog. Plans are coming together and, by working with a network of sector leaders, we hope to identify exactly what needs to change, and how best to do this. We’ve teamed up with the I Am Group to launch the network on 7th July.

ZAP! has come about through a need for a pre-crisis project that can support small charity CEOs, question the status quo and develop solutions; a need to develop a ‘think and do’ tank to innovate improvements to the way we run our vibrant and dynamic sector. The benefits of this work could be far reaching, creating improvements not just for CEOs, but also for organisations and, most importantly, their beneficiaries. This in turn has the potential to develop the sector as a whole, creating more efficient use of resources, a healthier, more humane workplace and better services.

This will be challenging work that asks provocative questions: should small charities be adopting the same structure that works for bigger, hierarchical organisations at all? Should they even have full-time Chief Executives – can they afford them? Should we be paying our trustees, like the business and statutory sectors, and who should sit on Boards? Should the government provide more support for small charity leaders?

These are certainly difficult questions and, as a small charity Chief Executive, you may not be at this point yet. But we know that many of you are, and in any case it’s almost impossible to take the time to think at this level when you’re leading a charity and unblocking the toilets at the same time. The sector has many pressing issues beside this one, and there seems to be little appetite to open this particular Pandora’s box.

But they are such important questions, and need some dedicated focus. We want to work with those in the thick of it – small charity CEOs – to find out whether things can and should be done differently. For example, small charities are flat organisations, with an average of 5-6 staff. These staff tend to work cross-functionally, which means there’s a knowledge-rich army of skilled generalists out there, who could be developed into taking a more strategic role in the small charities they are so dedicated to. Using key staff, Ambassadors and Patrons along with the trustees and Chair, a number of small charities (often those with start-up ethos) already operate without a full-time Chief Executive. How much do we know about the effectiveness of this model, and what can we learn from it?

Another question is how many small charities employ a full time fundraiser? This is often the domain of the CEO, who has so many other roles to fulfill. Given that fundraising is the cornerstone of charity, it would be useful to review how much investment small charities are making in this as a result of austerity policy, and explore new structural models that account for this.

This is not to say there’s no place for the role of CEO in small charities and I want to be really clear about that. I continue to lead as a charity CEO myself and am part of the dialectic on leadership in small organisations. But it is a fact that the current model does not always fit: wouldn’t it be great to understand more about this?

So ZAP! is opening up the floor to small charity CEOs, guiding you through this process to gain understanding and give you a voice. We hope you will join us in July.


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