The role of chief executives: A rapid evolution in charity leadership

The role of the charity chief executive has altered considerably over the past 25 years. Femke Colborne speaks to four experienced charity leaders, including Sir Nick Young from the British Red Cross, about the challenges and changes they have been through and the ones to come

Sir Nick Young, chief executive, the British Red Cross
Sir Nick Young, chief executive, the British Red Cross

Increasingly complex business models, growing demand for transparency and mounting pressure to compete with the private sector mean that leading a charity is a very different activity today compared with previous eras.

Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, has held a variety of senior charity management posts over the past 25 years. She believes the role of the charity chief executive has changed markedly in that time.

"We had no business plans or risk maps 25 years ago," she says. "We are now operating in a more complex environment, with more stakeholders, and we have to satisfy them that we are spending the money well."

There is also a greater focus on accounting for the money charities receive, she says, and more emphasis on organisations showing the impact of what they do.

Sir Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross since 2001, says the biggest change during his time in the sector is that charities have become more businesslike. When he joined the sector in the mid-1980s after a career in commercial law, his colleagues thought he was "going off to live in a hut and wear leather sandals".

Says Young: "They saw it as soft and fluffy - not at all businesslike. They were wrong then, but today they would be even more wrong. Standards have improved and more people are coming in from the business world, bringing skills with them. That has strengthened the sector."

Shift in perceptions

This increased professionalism has contributed to a shift in perceptions of the voluntary sector, according to Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of the environmental regeneration charity Groundwork UK.

"Twenty-five years ago we had not heard of the phrases 'third sector' and 'civil society'," he says. "Now we tend to see the sector as a grouping. This is good because it allows the government to understand the power of voluntary organisations, but it also makes it harder to see the diversity of approach, which is one of the sector's strengths."

Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of the social care organisation Turning Point, approves of the shift towards a more businesslike approach. "There has been a lot of debate about charities competing with the private sector to deliver services," he says. "At first people said it would pull the heart out of charities, but I have always thought that was nonsense.

"People who use the services of charities should not expect anything less than a professional service."

Adebowale believes career prospects in the sector have improved. Charities used to be seen as places where people volunteered rather than worked, he says. "When I left university I was shocked to discover I could work for a charity and get paid. There is more acceptance now that working for a charity is a credible career option."

Dame Clare TickellOne of the biggest changes for charities over the past quarter of a century has been the way they communicate with donors and beneficiaries. Back then there was no social media, and charities generally relied on methods such as posters, letters and telephone calls to reach out to people. "If users are unhappy with a service now, they can email me," says Tickell (right). "Charities have had to become more open and accessible and, as a chief executive, you are much more immediately visible."

The past 25 years have also seen fluctuations in the sector's fortunes, from the lean times of the 1980s to the fat years at the turn of the millennium and back to lean times now. Young says New Labour ushered in a golden era for charities. "There was more money, more government support and a greater sense of engagement in policy," he says. "The present government talks about the big society, but there is not quite the same sense of involvement and certainly not the same amount of money."

Hawkhead believes times are tough for charities at present because the need for their services is growing, funds are shrinking and charities are having to rely on fewer staff. But he says that, in spite of the problems they face, there is a determination "to carry on and help the poorest people in society because the work we do can't be done by anyone else".

Tickell says chief executives must stay positive and remember that public money and economies ebb and flow. "Some of the most creative energy comes from responding to challenges," she says. "It is important to use that energy to think positively about how we move forward for the next 25 years."

- Read other articles about how Acevo has evolved over the last 25 years, including an interview with Sir Stephen Bubb

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