Last week I talked about part 1: analysing a charity in two hours, and focused on the first hour of desk research. This week, I’m talking about the phone call with the chief executive.

The second hour: Phone call to the chief executive

The chief executive is a key ingredient to a charity’s success. So the purpose of this phone call is twofold:

a) to help you to understand the charity more and
b) to help you to assess the chief executive’s leadership qualities.

An hour is quite short. You may not be able to get into detail about strategy or governance: the hour will only get you so far. Purpose b) is harder than a): many chief executives talk a good game, but to really find out about his or her capabilities you’d have to meet staff to assess morale, dig around about his or her track record, talk to third parties. However, there is much you can glean from a phone call, eg, clear answers to questions will indicate clear leadership: unclear waffle is a bad sign—the charity’s staff may be none the wiser than you as to direction and priorities. I’d ask:

  • What does success look like for you?

I’d want to hear the charity’s ‘theory of change’, be convinced that it works, and smell some ambition. I was impressed by: ‘In the long term, success equals no need for us anymore as we will have helped to solve the problem of eating disorders in the UK.’ But I’d still want to know how the chief executive thinks the charity would achieve this…..

  • How do you know if you have succeeded? And have you?

A good answer would tell me how the charity measures and evaluates its work. Concrete examples of past success will tell me about track record.

  • What are the most important lessons you have learnt in the last year?

This will tell me if a charity learns from its measurement, evaluation, activities, and external environment, and whether it is adaptable.

  • How do you involve your beneficiaries?

I’d want to see a charity giving a voice and role to beneficiaries, and also using them to learn about needs, what works, and where next.

  • What is your charity’s particular contribution to the sector you are working in?

This is partly about the charity’s achievements. But I’d also like to hear about the context in which the charity works, and how it fits with everyone else. Mention of other charities’ contributions shows a collaborative and constructive outlook. If the chief executive moans incessantly about everyone else then I get twitchy.

  • Have you ever stopped one of your charity’s activities?

The answer should show me whether the chief executive knows or cares which activities work or not, and how resources are allocated. It also shows if he or she is a leader capable of making tough decisions. This would be my one question if I were in an elevator with a charity chief executive and wanted to make a donation at the end of the ride.

Book this call in advance. Chief executive’s time is like gold dust, so funders should only pursue the chief executive for a phone call if the potential donation is worth his or her time. I’d price this at £100 plus per hour, depending on a charity’s size. So a £500 donation wouldn’t merit the phone call unless it was to a tiny charity—£5,000 would be a good enough use of the chief executive’s time.

We’d love to hear from others about the questions they’d ask, and what they would prioritise in the time. I bet there are good proxy questions out there whose answer reveal a great deal.

Next time I’ll tell you how I’d spend a day. It will feel a luxurious amount of time in comparison to two hours.

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