Prioritisation of time and personal energy is essential for effectiveness, says Martin Crewe
We can all agree that leadership is vital for charity effectiveness, and when I embarked on my DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) research I expected there to be a rich literature to draw upon.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Most of the published studies focus on American not-for-profit organisations with an over-reliance on questionnaires sent out to a very broad range of individuals. Where authors have proposed measures of charity effectiveness these have really been just baseline expectations for any well-established UK charity. My research focused very specifically on CEOs of large (£10 million-plus income) Scottish charities, but I believe that many of the findings have relevance across the sector.
One of the challenges for charity CEOs is that they sit at the apex of the organisation so everything comes up to them – and it can appear that all of the issues are vital. However, prioritisation of time and personal energy is essential for effectiveness. For this group of CEOs, the top priorities were service delivery, staff, strategy, finance and governance.
From my in-depth discussions with 11 CEOs, it was clear that they thought deeply about the job, but conceptualised the role differently. However, there was consensus that ‘mission critical’ – as opposed to merely desirable – is an important concept for focusing their efforts.
Perhaps the most interesting results of my research related to the leadership approaches that seem to be associated with effectiveness. These boil down to an emphasis on delivering the mission, a people focus and upholding values. The headlines may not be surprising, but I would argue that a rigorous pursuit of these three approaches really does contribute to CEO effectiveness.
At the end of four years of research, and having successfully defended my thesis, I have been reflecting more generally on what we mean by effective charities and good leadership. Undoubtedly, charities should deliver for their beneficiaries whether this is through direct service provision or through influencing activities.
However, neither of these is easy to assess in an objective fashion. It is no surprise that attempts to compare the effectiveness of different charities have struggled to get beyond rather meaningless financial measures.
The question of ‘good’ charity leadership is also an interesting one. We may admire those CEOs who describe their courageous change initiatives, but some of these programmes might be unnecessarily disruptive and out of line with what the beneficiaries actually want. Similarly, we want leaders who are visible, but this can tip over into self-promotion and profile at the expense of running the organisation.
During my research I looked in-depth at 11 charities and their CEOs, but if you asked me which and who are most effective then I wouldn’t be able to give an answer. What I can say is that all of the CEOs were impressive individuals, and I think we should do more to celebrate both the high quality of our leaders and share their wisdom with others beyond the charity sector.