Anand Shukla: Spend on the back office to support the front line

Third sector organisations need to be professionally managed to give them any chance of meeting the major social challenges, writes the chief executive of mentoring charity Brightside

Anand Shukla
Anand Shukla

When we think about charity purpose, we focus naturally on the mission that charities are set up to deliver, such as providing help for the disadvantaged, campaigning for policy change, or advocating for social progress. This is, after all, what inspires people to work in the sector. One of the biggest pleasures of working in the sector is the number of people filled with passion for their particular cause. 

However, passion and goodwill are not, on their own, enough to address the challenges that the sector is looking to meet. Organisations need to be professionally run and managed to give us any chance of meeting the major social challenges that charities confront head on. 

This point – which should be an obvious one – is often counter-cultural within the sector. I have encountered resistance over the years to ensuring that back-office and reporting processes are fit for purpose. And, of course, there is the whole admin spend debate, which hangs above our heads like a heavy cloud.

But the biggest barrier is in respect of funding structures, which focus on project delivery rather than management capacity. This leads to organisations with limited capacity heroically trying to manage time-limited pots of funding. 

This matters. By ensuring that organisations are professionally managed and resourced to do so, they will have a much better chance of meeting their mission. In Sir Stephen Bubb’s recent interview with Third Sector following the announcement of his departure as chief executive of the charity leaders' body Acevo, it was noteworthy that his next project was to develop a new charities future programme focused on supporting charities to improve their leadership and governance. In Bubb’s words: "You can’t deliver on the front line unless you have the back office right. You have to invest in leadership and governance, but the trouble is that most funders won’t do that". 

Thankfully, there is some support for organisations out there, although inadequate given the scale of the challenge. In addition to the leadership development courses run by the likes of Acevo and National Council for Voluntary Organisations, there are also extended leadership programmes such as the Clore Social Leadership programme – a fully funded leadership programme that includes leadership residentials, coaching, mentoring and action learning sets.

There are also more innovative funders that focus on the organisation’s capacity and infrastructure. Social Business Trust and Impetus-PEF offer a more original form of support, providing charities with high-calibre financial and professional support to focus on the unglamorous, but vital, aspects of charity management such as strategic planning; finance systems; HR processes; legal advice and management reporting. 

It is important to reiterate that this is not a diversion from supporting the front line. Rather it is crucial to ensure that organisations support their beneficiaries with sustainable high-quality services, for the long term.

As chief executive of Brightside, a mentoring charity that supports 10,000 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds every year, one of my initial priorities was to secure such a package of support to enable the organisation to help our mentees as effectively as possible.

After spending the last nine months in the Social Business Trust’s Design programme, I was delighted to secure a long-term investment package of cash and professional support from the trust in March to implement the business plan we developed with it.

Short-term pro-bono support from companies is fine as far as it goes, but what is truly required from funders and philanthropists is long-term funding to build capacity, alongside strategic and professional support tailored to the needs of the organisation and the context of the charity’s mission.

Through this type of all-too-rare core funding and professional support, charities will have a fighting chance of delivering services that produce life-changing outcomes for the people they serve.

Anand Shukla is chief executive of Brightside. He was a Clore Social Leadership Fellow in 2012

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