Charity Support, Advice, Impact Measurement, Philanthropy Impact – NPC

Managing change: a unique challenge for charities

Look for advice on successful change management, and you won’t come up short on models, principles and guidance. Defined broadly as a systematic approach to dealing with change, it’s big business in the private and public sectors. Change management is certainly a feature of most non-profit management courses, too, though its models are often built on those from the private sector.

So should charities import the change management advice from other sectors?

In short, no. There are numerous reasons why this wouldn’t work—and first among them, is the difference in how change is driven in charities.

In the private sector, change management programmes usually stem from the top: the board decides that an organisation needs to change its systems, processes, or even transform how it does business. And that’s usually (always) driven by the profit imperative—change has to happen to maintain or increase competitive advantage.

The same applies in the public sector, where big change programmes are designed to increase efficiency or flexibility or simply to cut costs. Look at the major programmes of government digital transformation and you’ll find change driven from the top; change that has to happen.

For charities, however, the situation is different. They do not have a clear metric of success similar to profitability. Instead, they have to successfully perform in two dimensions at once: they need to raise funding, and they need to deliver services or activities. In theory, these two dimensions are inherently intertwined; but in practice this is rarely the case. Great fundraising teams drive financial success with only a weak link to their results (social impact). And great delivery teams drive outcomes with only a weak link to the organisation’s financial success. No surprises here for anyone who follows NPC—we were founded to help create tighter links between these two aspects of success. There may be shifts in the sector, but we’re far from being there yet.

What does this mean for managing change? Well, in order to drive change you need a burning platform. Then you need a vision of success, and a plan to get there. Together these three elements need to overcome inevitable resistance to change and difficulty in making it happen. Unless there’s a looming shift in a charity’s funding model, you’re unlikely to see the same top-down drivers for change—leaders need to bring together all three elements in a compelling way, and overcome the resistance they will face.

When we work with participants on implementing change at our upcoming Leading Impact conference, we’ll have to deal with this dual purpose: fundraising and delivery. We’ll need to break down the three facets—burning platform, vision and plan—into aspects that represent both sides of a charity’s work in practical terms. Because it’s all very well changing your programmes based on new insight about what works, but if you can’t shift your funding model to support those changes, you won’t get very far.

I’m certain already that change can and does happen in charities, and that if we build on what’s specific to charities rather than resorting to importing models from other sectors, we’ll be in a great position to help it happen faster, and more successfully than we otherwise could.

The burning platform: maybe it’s a long-term core funder changing its strategy, forcing a rethink of the whole organisation’s model (eg, WRVS, now Royal Voluntary Service); or a change of leadership prompting a review of the organisation’s purpose and approach.

The vision: maybe it’s a vision of how donations will be replaced over time by earned revenue (eg, NPC in its shift away from funding from our founders); or how to build a model that combines a social enterprise and grant-funding (eg, SolarAid).

The plan: here we’ll be calling on our session speakers and participants to guide us through their challenges and how they overcame them, on both the fundraising and delivery side.

We’ll also look at what can be done to create the right environment for change programmes to succeed—particularly how organisational culture can influence transformation and how giving people ownership of change can include trustees, frontline staff and beneficiaries, as well as senior managers.

I’m excited to see what comes out of the conference in March, and how we can build on that in the coming years.