The trend towards hiring special political advisors instead of fundraisers to the top roles reveals a little of the sector's inferiority complex about government, says Martin Edwards
Why don't more fundraising directors become chief executives of charities? Even in today's financial climate, it's a question few charities are confronting.
When recruiting a chief executive, many charity boards make what they perceive as the safe choice: someone with a background in the charity's programme field. But the mantra that such appointees "know all about our work" carries an air of confidence that, with funding getting ever tighter, no longer reassures.
It is rare for someone with a fundraising background, like myself, to be given the chance to run a charity. Fundraising directors find themselves, metaphorically, placed several yards behind the starting line compared with other candidates for the top job. But programme experience is not paramount. When I worked in brand management for Procter & Gamble 20 years ago, we could be switched to a different brand at will. Product knowledge could be learned; it was the general management training that mattered more.
Increasingly, however, even programme directors can be trumped by a new breed of applicants for the top charity jobs: special political advisers, or spads. They bring contacts galore and an apparent record of influencing government policy at the highest level.
Yet I can't help thinking that the number of spads acquiring top jobs at charities reveals a little of the charity sector's inferiority complex about government. For public sector policy, while undeniably important, is only one facet of a successful charity.
In fact, neither a programme background nor a government policy career will necessarily guarantee the three key attributes needed for effective leadership: financial, strategic and people skills. For a charity leader you could add a fourth: the ability to 'get' the charity - its mission, its passion and its soul.
Great fundraisers are financially literate, forward thinking and brilliant communicators, and have as much passion for the cause as anyone else. Even so, their skillset is often undervalued. I remember one trustee suggesting we appoint someone with no fundraising experience or comparable skillset to a fundraising vacancy on the grounds that they were fresh. I replied: "Would you ask someone who has never looked under a car bonnet to service your car?"
My strategy as a fundraising director aiming for a chief executive job some years ago was to devise and present leadership training all across the charity and to produce a leadership website. I then chose to apply to a different charity, rather than the one I worked for, reckoning that this would reduce the chances of being pigeon-holed. When I applied, I presented myself in general management terms. It worked first time for me, at Julia's House, whose income has quadrupled during my tenure. I just wish more charities would take this risk.
Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House