Leadership after the Crisis

I don’t know about you but 2021 for me was just a long slog. After the constant crisis that was 2020, this year has been less of an emergency but has consisted of a seemingly endless series of challenges as organisations adjust to a Covid world.

And 2022 looks like starting the same way. This is all… quite tiring really.

We see this fatigue across very many of our clients. While the charities we work with have, for the most part, had a reasonable year in 2021 (fundraising results have held up fairly well if not hitting the peaks that were achieved at points in 2020), it has felt like really hard work. Just keeping on, staying positive and moving things forward has been pretty difficult.

This is one reason why there are now so many vacancies in fundraising roles across the sector. The combination of the recruitment freezes of last year, people re-evaluating life choices out of the pandemic and just being very, very tired is resulting in huge amounts of turnover. “The Great Resignation” isn’t hyperbole for lots of our clients.

This feels like a key point for our sector. There is nothing that will make a bigger difference to the success of organisations than having the best possible staff. The decisions that are made in the next few months about hiring will shape the future of charities for a long time to come.

Since setting up AAW five years ago, we have learned an enormous amount about recruiting the right people into senior charity roles. In retrospect, I can’t believe how arrogant we were. We thought that having worked in senior roles in charities for about a thousand years and hired loads of people that made us experts in recruitment. Spoiler alert, it didn’t. Our learning curve was steep. But we definitely learned fast, and our recruitment offer has become stronger and stronger. Or that’s what our clients tell us anyway.

What we have seen in this time is the difference the right recruitment makes to organisations. There’s lots of examples but I’ve pulled out a few as being particularly transformative.

Amongst the Fundraising and Communications Directors we’ve recruited, the difference Sonya Trivedy at SamaritansLouise Firth at Refuge and Michael Dent at WWF-UK have made to their organisations really stand out.

Sonya and Louise joined their respective charities about the same time – towards the end of 2018/beginning of 2019. There were some marked similarities between the two organisations – both had significant brand awareness and powerful positioning, but their voluntary income wasn’t matching ambition on impact. Both had seen a lot of change and transition in terms of fundraising leadership. It seemed that Refuge and Samaritans were often on the brink of breakthrough, only to be knocked back. Louise and Sonya brought heaps to their new organisations… talent, energy and experience but crucially they also had the emotional intelligence and excellent leadership qualities to help make internal cultural change happen. If you keep up to date on fundraising news, you will know that both organisations have witnessed significant income growth since 2019. They’ve not just broken through… but smashed it.

Michael Dent joined WWF-UK as Executive Director of Supporter Income and Engagement in early 2019. While the charity was already in a strong position in income and brand, its growth had stalled in recent years. Since joining, Michael has really driven fundraising forward through a combination of using sector-leading digital and offline marketing techniques to grow existing programmes such as animal adoptions, while capitalising on new opportunities arising out of WWF’s response to the climate crisis. Michael has brought a real risk appetite and an entrepreneurial mindset to the charity and it is truly paying dividends. WWF is now one of the fastest growing major charities.

Amongst CEOs, Lea Milligan is really having an impact at MQ Mental Health Research. MQ, a relatively young organisation, was at a crucial juncture when we started working with them in January 2020. It needed the right entrepreneurial leadership at the top to really turn the dial on income generation and leverage the seed support the charity had been fortunate enough to have from the Wellcome Foundation. It was a brave move for the Board of Trustees to push hard on finding a ‘fundraising’ CEO. We knew that Lea had done an amazing job at Mercy Ships – his track record was pretty extraordinary. And we were right in believing he was the right boss at MQ for this stage in its journey. Lea has the talent, drive and yes here it is again the ability to drive internal change, to make things click. And the dial at MQ has been well and truly turned.

The right person in a senior role can be completely transformative. And the cost of the wrong one enormous. So it’s surprising that many organisations are still not really giving enough attention to getting recruitment right. Or thinking strategically about matching an individual’s profile to the needs of the organisation both immediately and over the next 3-5 years.

There has been a serious skills shortage in fundraising for a long time and this situation isn’t changing any time soon. We can debate the reasons, but there is no question that there are more organisations looking for experienced fundraisers than there are suitable or willing candidates. But recruitment isn’t just about finding people with the skills to do the job, it’s about finding the person who will succeed in your organisation’s context. To do this requires a real understanding of what is needed and a process that is very robust and thorough. Don’t try and skip this.

After the two years we have had, having to recruit a good chunk of your team is the last thing that anyone really wants to do. But it is the most important of all the urgent tasks that you face. While it’s tempting to try and short-cut processes to get people in quickly, this is always a mistake.

The Great Resignation will be followed by the Great Hiring. 2022 here we come.

(And of course we’d be happy to help if you want to get in touch)

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