Freelancers for charities

What do small charity CEOs do all day?

How can you ensure that what you are doing matches what you should be doing?
Posted by Alex on 01/03/2023
Most charity CEOs get sucked into being all things to all people. With restricted funding and so little of it, CEOs have to be something like the liquid poured into a jar of stones, providing the connective matter between the constituent parts, but also plugging specific gaps. At the extremes, the CEO will often end up being the IT manager or the graphic designer if nobody else can. Or indeed, unblocking the community centre toilet just before the potential corporate sponsor arrives. It’s a glamorous life.



Beyond the most glaring role mis-matches are the more fundamental questions. What kind of CEO are you, and what would you rather be doing with your time? You took the job because you thought this role could make the best use of your strengths. But day to day, that can drift, and many CEOs complain they never get to do the job they feel they were hired to do. 


Embracing your strengths – and what you enjoy


Most commonly, CEOs say to me that they never get time to look at the ‘big picture.’ Others say they never have time to see the details because they are always ‘out there’ raising cash – or vice versa. I admire big picture leaders who go out and build brand awareness, amazing partnerships, and make it rain cash with a flash of a smile to a room full of corporates; and those massively underappreciated, detailed, hands-on leader-managers who lead excellent services, and manage teams to get incredible performance. Yes, I’m stereotyping here: most of us are a bit of both. But realistically, we all have different balances of skills and talents, aptitudes and areas of excellence. 


But here is perhaps the most controversial thing I can say to a group of people who, let’s be honest, have a bit of a tendency to martyr ourselves: – you are allowed to have a preference. And you are allowed, within reason, to let that steer your work, and influence your focus. You may be someone who can think strategically but, honestly, the idea of running more workshops and churning out another SWOT makes you want to hide beyond the three-legged community centre ping pong table. At one organisation, I once overhauled all our policies and governance to the envy and admiration of my peers - and handed in my resignation a few months later because I couldn’t face ever having to do that again. You are allowed to have a preference, you are allowed to play to your strengths, and you are allowed to hand over the things that you are not the best person to do, as long as they are then handled properly by somebody else. 


Put simply: you are allowed to focus – because many times, that is the best thing for your organisation. CEOs who do this tend to flourish – because their passion, as well as their skills and talents, are fully engaged. That pays dividends for organisations who need adept, engaged leaders who have time to lead.


How to make it happen


So you will rightly be asking, ‘How, in my small charity, am I supposed to make that happen? We don’t have the cash for a second in command to balance the CEO. We can’t afford a senior team, or a big back office full of specialists.’ There are no magical solutions, but here are a few possibilities. 


Obviously, pursuing greater scale can give you the chance to expand organisational leadership capacity and skills mix. You build your turnover to increase (unrestricted) income, and this allows you to increase leadership capacity, allowing for greater specialisation. Of course, having the capacity to put into that growth in the first place is usually the problem. 


You can also look for complementary skills, personality types, and willingness to take on other responsibilities in your wider recruitment. If you need a finance lead, finding one who also has experience as an HR lead (or in fundraising, IT, etc.) could give you a leg up. I call this the charity sector ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ approach - because the role is made up of all the bits and pieces of people you need, which funders won’t fund. It is usually unavoidable, and is the cornerstone of most small charity recruitment strategy – but at a  certain point it becomes unsustainable. You end up spreading the lack of focus across the whole organisation. 


One way to avoid these drawbacks is to look to pull in senior leadership expertise to complement your skills as and when you need it, whether to give you extra capacity on your wider leadership work, or simply to take away some specialist tasks that don’t need your time. Freelance senior HR experts, fundraisers, finance people, domain experts, strategy consultants can all make a really big difference in a short time. They cost a lot less than a permanent new post - which would often be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In my experience, people often think they need a full-time post to solve a single problem/ gap that a freelancer could solve in a day or two a month. (Small gaps can have significant enough impacts that they appear to need drastic and costly solutions.) 


Whether any of these options are open to you right now, the key is to look to the future. If you have to be all things to everyone for now, what is your strategy to get to a place where you can focus? You may be unblocking the loos now, but with the right strategy, and the right resource, that can change. 


Alex is a highly experienced Chief Executive and Director of Third Sector organisations, He is now a full time consultant and has spent many years helping organisations of all sizes develop and implement high-impact programmes, build winning strategies, and build a sustainable income. 

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