Why running an effective charity is like flying a fighter plane


As I was listening to Stephen Bubb talking yesterday at Acevo’s conference on the role of the CEO in difficult times, I got to thinking about the particular challenges of leading a charity that’s committed to making the greatest possible impact. One of Stephen’s points was that CEOs need to maintain absolute optimism (among staff, but also externally) about their charity’s future, even in the face of huge financial risks and evidence that might make lesser mortals veer towards pessimism.

That point was well made, but it made me reflect on a different challenge. In my experience, charity CEOs have a pretty unshakable belief in their charity’s approach – that it’s right, that it’s better than the competition, that it really changes people’s lives. That belief is required to maintain the optimism that’s needed, to put on a brave face when navigating the storms of turbulent times like those we’re in right now.

But to lead an organisation that’s committed to impact and performance, you need a different set of attributes. You need to be open to questioning your approach. Challenging your assumptions. Gathering data and responding to it. Embracing change in order to improve what you’re doing. And you need to propagate those attitudes throughout your charity – to be a role model for your team. Because in my experience, high performance charities are driven by a culture and leadership committed to continuous improvement, not by what or how they measure.

How can a CEO combine these two apparently conflicting sets of characteristics whilst maintaining their sanity? How can you have absolute belief that your organisation’s doing what’s right, but also be completely committed to finding out how it’s wrong and needs to be changed?

Modern fighter aircraft are designed, unlike more traditional aircraft, to be inherently unstable. Left to physics and pilot control, they would simply fall out of the sky. But with a host of computers making minute adjustments to their control surfaces every moment they’re in flight, they are able to maintain stability. They’re designed like this because an inherently unstable aircraft can be incredibly agile, so it can outmanouevre anything else in the sky.

What’s my point? I think being the CEO of a high impact charity is like flying a modern fighter plane. You have to combine a fundamental belief that what you’re doing is right with an equally fundamental openness to challenging your assumptions and changing your charity’s approach. But just like the modern fighter jet, if you can master these forces in tension, the result is an organisation that’s much more effective than the traditional alternative, more agile and able to manoeuvre through stormy weather and competition. And as a charity CEO, that ultimately means creating the greatest possible impact in your efforts to change people’s lives, whatever the world outside throws at you.