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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Embracing cultural change

This opinion piece is 9 months old

Cultural change is crucial for the Third Sector in turbulent times, and the key to success is having the courage to call in the experts

It is a truism that change is the only constant, and any business hoping for the pace of change to slow or stop is barking up the wrong tree. Demographics are changing, the population is shifting, customer trends, technology and public sentiment are all on the move.

Businesses who are unwilling to, or fail to, embrace change are doomed. This is also a truism, but what is less generally acknowledged is that the same pressures and imperatives apply equally strongly to charities, or the Third Sector.

This section of the economy, which altruistically aims to create social rather than material wealth, is enormous, and growing ever bigger. According to the 2020 UK Civil Society Almanac, the voluntary sector contributed £18.2 billion to the economy by 2018. More than 166,000 organisations employed 909,088 people.

As in business, change in a charitable organisation is heavily weighted with positives. It can lead to a competitive edge in the search for the next £1 in donations, as well as allowing the enterprise to remain relevant in terms of operations.

Change encourages innovation, develops skills, enhances staff capability, leads to better business opportunities and improves staff morale. The Covid period has only emphasised how important keeping in tune with the zeitgeist can be.

Of all the different aspects of change – to processes, technology or carbon footprint, for instance – cultural change is the one which can have the most dramatic and long-lasting impact, altering the entire ethos of a charity.

As in business, change in a charitable organisation is heavily weighted with positives.

Although it is the transformation which costs the least, it is, ironically, one of the most difficult to undertake, since at its core it involves people who, by their very nature, tend to be resistant to change, especially in an area with so many unpaid volunteers.

Sometimes it is so easy to see where the culture is totally out of kilter. Recent high-profile exposures of appalling behaviours by charity workers showed that not only was the ethos unsound but that the problem was endemic – and, as a consequence, donations fell off a cliff.

However, even when it is recognised that change is becoming necessary, many not-for-profits do not have the same skills portfolio as a corporate and the mission can be passed for implementation to an individual who simply does not have the requisite expertise.

The answer, of course, is to bring in the experts, people whose business it is to maximise potential, build resilience and strengthen skills. It is a fact that experts are necessary. No one would think of doing their own brain surgery.

Charity executives, though, often tend to shy away from seeking external help with cultural change, fearing that it will be very expensive and eat into resources. This is a misapprehension. As mentioned earlier, it is one of the types of change which delivers the greatest value for money.

Typically, consultants will engage with an executive leadership team or a board which has identified the need for change but is struggling to articulate how it can be achieved. They need clarity on what their visions and values are, what they want to be known for and how to change behaviour to achieve that.

The key is understanding the desired future state and ensuring that thinking is aligned to it, and that the decision-makers in the organisation are all pointed in the same direction. People’s responsibilities also need to align – their accountabilities and the KPIs they are measured on. Measures of success must not conflict with the change goals.

There has to be a really compelling communications process. The conversations managers have with their teams are crucial in reinforcing the message and the messages cannot be repeated often enough. Consistency of message creates a confidence that people are doing the right thing and, as they do, the organisation has to highlight the success stories that will inevitably emerge.

Cultural change generates a snowball effect, so it is necessary to build up a momentum which becomes unstoppable. Early adopters should be recognised and champions celebrated, until the tipping point is reached and everyone in the charity – volunteer or paid employee – comes on board with enthusiasm and commitment.

Identifying the need to change is the catalyst for any organisation, charitable or otherwise. Having the vision to bring in the expertise to implement it is what will determine the difference between success and failure.

Neil Bradbrook is Managing Director of Ahead Business Consulting.



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