Why charity CEOs are more important than the bosses of companies

By John Copps 11 February 2010

Below is an extract from a recent conversation I had with Anthony Bolton, President of Investments at Fidelity International and the City of London’s most successful fund manager of the last thirty years. He was commenting after reading the section on leadership in The little blue book.

“I think the ceo is absolutely the most important aspect of a charity … A good or bad ceo makes or breaks a charity. I think the role is even more important than that at a company. A company can sometimes succeed by say having a great product or discovering a big oil field regardless of how good the ceo is in a way a charity can’t.”

Anthony has spent decades analysing and investing in public companies, so his comments carry considerable weight. His first point is perhaps not surprising and a view shared by many. But his comparison with commercial companies is fascinating.

Everyone who works for a charity knows how important their chief executive is. Charities depend on their vision and passion, and commitment to the cause. The CEOs of charities work hard: not only do they set the strategy and lead their organisations on a day-to-day basis, but they are also invariably the biggest fundraisers and are expected to get involved in the front-line operations of their organisation.

Unlike the bosses of many companies, there are tasks that he or she cannot delegate – even small funders usually want to deal directly with the CEO, the board often does not provide the support it should, and invariably resources constrain what back-up is available. A CEO needs to inspire people and cultivate close relationships with whimsical donors, alongside having a solid grasp of the machinations of the business.

In contrast, a CEO of a successful company can often get away with being simply competent. As Anthony notes, a company can sometimes succeed by having a great product or making a discovery in a way that a charity cannot.

Anthony’s observation is striking and makes me feel fortunate to have met lots of charity chief executives during my time at NPC. For their tireless work for the public’s benefit, I think we should all be thankful.

To read a follow-up to this post, see here.