Paul Streets: Meetings with remarkable people

We need to be proud of the achievements of those leading our smaller charities, writes the chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

I’ve led four national organisations but my meetings with countless chief executives of the smaller charities we fund have led me to conclude that overseeing a local charity is something else.

Chief executives of large charities may be pre-occupied with questions of how to maintain contracts and fundraising growth in a post-Olive Cooke world but, as austerity bites, small charity chief executives have seen income from local and central government halve, but demand rise and gets more complex.

Whereas the chief executives of larger organisations are well paid and are supported by a suite of directors, leaders of small charities need to be involved in all the roles and multi-task in ways that would challenge Ganesh. And the pay is poor.

It is surprising anyone does it.

And yet most of the small charity leaders I meet are unfailingly enthusiastic, dedicated and upbeat:

There are the innovators with ambition such as Suzanne Knipe at Norton Hall Children and Family Centre, working in Birmingham to revamp an old community centre and regenerate a run-down park. Or Matt Bell at Exeter Community Initiatives whose core work with homeless people has spawned community spin-offs.

There are the strategists driving cross-sector collaborations such as Carole Dixon at the Education Futures Trust in Hastings, who is engaging local leaders to support young people and persuading cash-strapped schools to fund it. Or Monika Stark at Leicestershire Cares, who is engaging local business to employ the previously unemployable.

We have passionate advocates with an inner fervour that wouldn’t look out of place in religious orders, such as Joanna Kennedy, an ex-commercial lawyer who is chief executive at Zacchaeus 2000, which is fighting poverty cheek by jowl with prosperity in West London. Or Becky Rogerson at My Sister’s Place, providing one-stop domestic abuse services across Middlesbrough.

Then there are the entrepreneurial phoenixes who see opportunities where many would see obstacles. These include Kim Shutler-Jones of the mental health charity The Cellar Trust near Bradford, which is helping to fund its services through its café, conference facilities and wood workshop. Or Tracy Freeman, who is tackling homelessness at First Stop Darlington through the creation of a bike shop.

These are remarkable people in anyone’s book – and they do all this without the caché or benefits associated with running high-profile national organisations.

Most have rich life experience and many have been there for years. Often they’re first-time chief executives stepping up from the frontline, or were the founders, making them instinctive rather than learned in how they lead.

The determination and sheer bloody mindedness that drives them to do these tough roles may not always make them easy to deal with, but it does mean they are prepared to move heaven and earth to make a difference for the people who come through their doors.

You won’t see many of them at sector shindigs in Whitehall or Westminster, but lots of them exist. We fund nearly 1,000 of their organisations but you could multiple that by 46 if we covered all charities with incomes of between £25,000 to £1m a year.

They, and what they do, are what we should be most proud of as a sector.

These great leaders I meet have traits other sectors would give their eye teeth for: a commitment to cause over contract; an inner-reward system geared to sustainable results over short-term fixes; and a proximity to customers that public and private organisations can’t get close to, even with complicated user-engagement mechanisms and expensive focus groups.

It is no coincidence that most of the people I’ve referred to are women – as are the majority who lead the 97 per cent of charities with incomes of under £1m a year. So while public and private sectors endlessly set unmet targets for diversity, those leading our small and medium-sized charities are striding ahead.

Read into this what you will, but it is something else we should shout about as a sector if only we stopped looking over other shoulders and started to look over our own.

Paul Streets is the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation. @PaulStreets_, @LBFEW

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