Andy Ratcliffe: Are you boring enough to be a charity chief executive?

The exciting bits of leadership matter, but these qualities are over-rated compared with those of the dull deliverer

Andy Ratcliffe
Andy Ratcliffe

If you read job adverts for charity chief executives, you’ll see lots of exciting words such as bold, visionary, ambitious, innovative and passionate. But I’d like to add another: boring. Any candidate for the top slot should ask themselves "am I boring enough?"

Now I realise that the boring bandwagon won’t have many jumping on. But the more time I spend backing charities to increase their impact, the more I’m convinced we need to embrace the boring, because it’s often the boring stuff, not the brilliant ideas, that delivers impact. Let me give three examples from choices many of us face.

The first is growing size versus growing impact. I see a lot of social sector organisations that focus on growing their turnover without always pausing to ask whether that will also grow their impact.

It’s easier to go to your board with the message that "we’re going to double in size" than "we’re going to go slower on growth, but we’re going to spend a lot of time driving impact, writing checklists and manuals to capture how our programme works and on high-quality induction for new staff". The latter is hardly the call to arms to inspire your trustees.

But we know that most programmes become less effective as they grow. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, the impact fades. So, if we’re about impact, the boring route of making sure you can keep delivering quality might be the way to go. In his excellent book How to Change the World, Craig Dearden-Phillips quotes a social sector chief executive as saying: "Turnover is vanity; impact is sanity."

The second choice is innovation versus implementation. Do you introduce new, innovative approaches, or do you plug away on your existing programme to make it work? Innovation is cool. Everyone loves the shiny and new. And we know a lot of funders want to move on after three years, or even one. But my experience is that a lot of innovations are not given time to see if they work because they’re overtaken by the next innovation. It can take a long time to build and test a programme before you’re even confident that it’s having impact, and innovation can be a distraction from that process. Again, the mundane matters.

Spending on the front line versus the back office is the third and most controversial choice. It’s really hard for charities to justify and fundraise for spending on central staff and systems. Of course, we should care about efficiency. And of course, the front line is crucial for the delivery of any programme.

But we see so many charities where the boring back office is so starved of resources that it starts to undermine the ability of the front line people to do their jobs, or even to know where the front line is. Too much "overhead" is bad. But if overhead means great leadership, strong performance management or decent IT to get the job done, so is too little. I vote for a little more boring.

The exciting bits of leadership do matter. Leaders do need to inspire, bring vision and persuade. But these qualities are over-rated compared with the fundamental questions on which impact depends.

So if you’re a charity leader, look yourself in the mirror and ask "am I boring enough?" If you’re on the board of a charity, maybe you should hire the dull deliverer over the charismatic communicator. We need more Clark Kent’s, diligently reporting for the Daily Planet, and fewer Supermen and Superwomen hogging the headlines.

And if, like our charities, you’re someone who's already grinding out the boring basics of impact, you should feel proud because the one thing that isn’t boring is the end result: improving the lives of the people you serve.

Andy Ratcliffe is chief executive of Impetus-PEF

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