Is the charity sector facing a leadership exodus?

In the past year many charity leaders have unexpectedly left the sector or made surprising sideways moves. Rebecca Cooney asks the experts whether the pandemic has triggered a brain drain

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Charity chief executive has never been an easy gig. As the public face of the organisation, a key decision-maker and the person responsible for overseeing the day-to-day implementation of strategy, the buck stops with you. 

During the pandemic, the decisions have become harder, the strategies have been disrupted or even rendered worthless and the demand for services has increased. 

All of this has taken its toll on the sector’s leadership. 

In January, a survey of 450 charity leaders by the insurance firm Ecclesiastical found that 44 per cent had considered quitting during the pandemic as a result of the increased pressures.

And over the past year, a related trend began to emerge in Third Sector news stories about the departures of chief executives from major charities. Many leaders, it appeared, were not moving on to similar or more prestigious jobs, but taking a sideways move or going to smaller organisations, leaving the sector altogether or shifting to “portfolio” or freelance careers.

A glance at the numbers seems to suggest that this group of leaders has been growing during the pandemic. 

From March 2019 to March 2020, 62 per cent of news stories about chief executives stepping down – excluding those that involved a scandal or a retirement – featured leaders who did not have another job lined up, were leaving the sector or were moving to a smaller charity. 

In the year to March 2021, which was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the figure was 81 per cent. Between March and June this year it was 100 per cent (although this was only two news stories). 

This is far from scientific – the figures are small and the likelihood of a story making it into a Third Sector news bulletin depends on what else was going on that day. But it hints at a broader trend that others in the sector have
also noticed. 

Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders’ body Acevo, says that she and her member support team feel they have seen “more movement than we would normally expect in this period generally – there is quite a lot of churn at chief executive level”.

While Acevo doesn’t capture data on where people are moving to, Browning says: “Anecdotally it does feel like there is a greater proportion of people taking a break, recalibrating, rethinking what they might want to do next rather than just going from one big role to another.”

Shaks Ghosh, chief executive of Clore Social Leadership, which offers training for managers and leaders in the voluntary sector, agrees. The people her organisation works with are, to some extent, a self-selecting group – they are restless and want to progress with their career. They are also unlikely to be at the very top of their career yet. 

But even among this group, Ghosh believes there is more movement than usual. 

“The ones who seem to be moving are the more experienced leaders – those who are well-positioned to start moving into very senior roles,” she says.

“And they are moving up – so how come so many people are moving up? There must be those vacancies at the very top. The question becomes: ‘What happened to those people?’

“I can only speculate that it’s been a hard year, and if you’re running one of those giant charities, life is hard, and you start to consider your options.”

Ghosh plans to stay for at least a few more years in her own role, but says: “I can’t say that I haven’t thought: ‘Maybe now is the time.’” 

Women in particular, she believes, have borne the brunt of the past year with homeschooling and working around children. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people are saying: ‘This is all too much,’” she says. 

This could explain the increase in people moving into portfolio careers, which offer increased flexibility – or act as a precursor to retirement for someone who wants to move out of their current role but isn’t yet ready to give up work altogether. 

Ultimately, Ghosh believes this could have damaging implications for the sector. 

“As an older leader, I look at other chief executives and I think how smart and wise and experienced they are, and to lose all of that is an absolute tragedy, particularly given the volatile times that are about to hit us,” she warns.

Frayed at the edges

Browning says one charity boss recently told her she was increasingly feeling “frayed round the edges” – a description she thinks would resonate across her organisation’s membership.

“We’re definitely seeing people working very long hours, blurred boundaries between home and work so things spill over,” she says. 

“People are knackered and there are fewer opportunities for good holidays and breaks to recharge the batteries.”

None of these issues are unique to chief executives or to the charity sector, but it is a repeated theme Acevo hears from its members.

“The constant crisis mode leaves less time to reflect, think strategically,  or to get the headspace that, as a chief executive, you really need in order to feel you’re moving forward,” she says. 

“People still feel that they’re constantly dealing with the next change that comes up – and on top of that you’ve got the financial challenges organisations are dealing with and the long-term uncertainty that makes it difficult to plan.”

The pandemic is also likely to have magnified any issues that existed in the organisation already, particularly around relationships with the chair, board or staff. 

“We often find when dealing with a chief executive in crisis, that there has been an elephant in the room that people have ignored for a while,” Browning says.

“Communicating virtually, which is just not as effective at building rapport and relationships, has stopped people picking up on nuances and nipping any issues in the bud.”

But there could be a more positive reason for the number of people moving away from the top jobs: remote working has given some people an improved work-life balance, “and living through the pandemic will have prompted people to rethink their priorities and think maybe they need to do something completely different with their lives,” Browning says. 

Jane Ide, former chief executive of the infrastructure umbrella body Navca, who moved mid-pandemic to lead the cultural sector support charity Creative & Cultural Skills (see below), agrees.

“The pandemic has created a moment where a lot of people have had the time or opportunity to really think about their lives, and I’m seeing people making choices that are less obvious,” she says. 

“Without putting words in anyone’s mouths, I suspect if something happens
like a bereavement or a change in personal circumstances where you have to stop for a minute, you can see clearly what the job was doing to you.”

Joanna Moriarty, partner at the charity recruitment consultancy Green Park, says her firm has also noticed a pattern of senior leaders stepping away from the top jobs. 

“I think people are tired because everything they’ve done has been on the public stage, there’s been a lot of scrutiny – every cut you’ve had to make has been in the public eye, it’s been tough,” she says. 

“But alongside that people are also getting a sense that however good you are, there comes a time when a fresh pair of eyes is important – there comes a sense that they could carry on doing the same thing but so many things have changed that perhaps it is time for a different way of doing things. 

“We’re hearing people saying: ‘I’ve done three cycles of the strategic plan, if I stay now I’m committing myself to another three years’, and realising they’d rather leave now than when the job is half done,” she says. 

Despite the potential loss of talent, there could also be real benefits to the charity sector of a change in leadership. Some of those in senior management positions have stepped up and shone over the past year, and if they are moving into the chief executive roles it could be a “healthy sign” for the sector, Moriarty says.

“There are opportunities for new kinds of leadership, and that’s really exciting,” she says. “A style that’s a bit less macho, a bit more collaborative, creative and innovative, a bit less hero-orientated, more inclusive, more about how things are done as a team and more encouraging of new leaders.” 

She also believes this might pave the way for a greater diversity of leaders in the sector. 

“We are seeing new and different people get chief executive jobs – people from outside the sector and people of colour, for instance,” she says.

“We’re also seeing fewer internal appointments – there was a phase a little while ago when it seemed like there were a lot of internal candidates being crammed into roles.” 

Moriarty believes there is an increasing consciousness that organisations want their senior leadership to reflect the communities they serve. 

“That has made people think differently about what leadership looks like and more willing to think about what good looks like for them, rather than saying: ‘What did we have last time, can we have another one of those?’”

Developing new muscle

The additional pressures of the pandemic have also played into a trend Moriarty has noticed developing in recent years – the typical tenure of a chief executive has been getting shorter. 

“It used to be around 10 years, now it’s about three, although obviously there are some people who stay much longer,” she says. “But once it was the case that you came up within your organisation, you got to the top of it and then you stayed there forever. 

“Now, clients are often quite suspicious of people who have built all their experience in one organisation, they want people who’ve dealt with a range of scales, cultures and issues.”

The recruitment agency was initially concerned that if the pandemic led to a large number of charity closures, “the market would be flooded” with people who had previous chief executive experience, leaving those who were ready to move up with nowhere to go.

But the past 18 months have called for leaders who know how to operate in an environment of ambiguity and incomplete information, which aren’t necessarily the skills that many chief executives will have needed over the preceding 10 years, Moriarty says. 

This has likely added to the strain for existing leaders as they are forced to “develop new muscle”, she says, but will have provided strong training for the next generation who are likely to need those skills as the sector tackles the aftermath of the pandemic. 

“I think people who are ‘CEO-ready’ are now feeling more confident that they are going to have those opportunities than they might have been a year ago,” she says. 

Ide agrees. “If you cut back an overgrown hedge and it lets the light in, you get the wild flowers coming through,” she says. 

“I hope the vast majority of people who move on are moving on for positive reasons, but they are creating space and opportunity and I hope the sector is willing to be more inclusive, and willing to take the risk of bringing in someone who hasn’t had a decade’s experience.”

Losing to burnout

While fears of a brain drain might turn out to be an exaggeration, Browning says there remains a cost associated with losing people where the decision to move isn’t wholly positive.  

“It is a real shame when we lose talented people to burnout, which can be horrible and have long-lasting effects, so we do need to think about the wellbeing of all charity staff,” she says.

“If a charity has a building, that’s an asset, and it wouldn’t let the roof cave in or windows remain smashed. The chief executive is one of the best assets a charity has, so it needs to look after them the way it would a physical asset.”

And, she says, the sector must ensure that it supports new leaders coming in. 

“It’s really important we don’t get a fresh new load of really brilliant people and then wear them out as well – that isn’t the way forward,” she says. 

Her advice for charities is to ensure they keep communications open between the board and the chief executive, and make time to develop that relationship and check in with their leaders. 

For the chief executives themselves, she says the key is to “consciously carve out time for headspace, and prioritise that rather than seeing it as a ‘nice-to-have’”.

And, she says: “Take time off and really switch off – even the most Duracell bunny of us has to have time to recharge.”

Moriarty agrees – although, she says, it’s easier said than done. 

“We’ve spoken to so many chief executives who are so in awe of what people are doing for them on the front line that they don’t want to take time out for themselves,” she says. 

“But unless you do that, you can’t do your own job – it’s that whole aphorism about adjusting your own oxygen mask before helping others.”

And the challenges wrought by the pandemic are a long way from over, as Browning is quick to point out. 

“Things will change as we come out of the pandemic, but not going to get that much better – we’re still going to have massive financial challenges,” she says.

“There will be huge workforce challenges when furlough ends – you’re going to have those who have been sitting at home feeling frustrated and then frontline staff who have worked flat out [throughout] the whole thing delivering in person. So how do you rebuild team cohesion and stop animosity
and resentment from both sides?”

Ghosh says that the volatile times the sector is about to go through will make the loss of many experienced leaders even more keenly felt. 

“Hopefully some of them may return at some point, but I also think we have to find ways to keep those who leave the sector involved,” she says. 

“I really hope we can entice as many of them as possible to continue to make a contribution to the voluntary sector, either as trustees or as mentors, helping to support the next generation of leaders.”


‘If I hadn’t stepped back, I’m not sure where I’d be’

Jane Ide made what she acknowledges was an “unexpected move” during the pandemic. In September she left her high-profile position as chief executive of the infrastructure umbrella body Navca to take up the same role at the cultural sector support charity Creative & Cultural Skills. 

The move itself wasn’t prompted by the pandemic, as Ide had started thinking about switching jobs in January 2020. But taking up a new role during the crisis gave her a new perspective on the challenges facing charity leaders. 

“At Navca, the ordinary job was great. In the pandemic I still loved it, and felt we could do some amazing stuff,” she says. “But if I hadn’t stepped back to do this job, I’m not sure where I’d be right now.”

Despite the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector, her new role, she says, is calmer and allows her to have lunch breaks, evenings and weekends. “I wasn’t aware of it before I left, but looking back at that year now and the intensity of it – you find yourself working at a pace that was never intended to be sustained over such a long period of time.”

Ide suspects that other leaders will have experienced the same thing. “It’s never easy being the chief executive at the best of times. You’re always going to feel like you’ve not done enough, and then you add the pandemic and those very particular, exquisite pressures that come with that and it becomes even more difficult,” she says.

“I look at my colleagues who are still in that space and it’s the boiling frog syndrome: you don’t know until you’ve stopped what it’s doing to you. But once you have seen it, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”

Ide thinks the departures from senior roles may continue after the disruption caused by the pandemic has settled, as more people get the space to realise how tired they are. 

“People have been thinking they’re lucky to have a job or that they have to carry on because the charity won’t survive without them,” she says. “But I know of people who haven’t made the next move yet but are starting to feel like they’ve really got to do something about the position they’re in.

“And the barriers that are stopping them making those moves get smaller as the pressures get higher and higher.”

Nonetheless, Ide says, the notion of simply leaving a job without a “better” one to go to is something many people find unnerving, as the notions of working up a career ladder are so ingrained, particularly in the charity sector. 

In a way, she says, she has been lucky in her own career, having moved between the private sector, the NHS, the Civil Service and the charity sector, and taken breaks at various points to take on caring responsibilities.

“That’s given me the freedom, later in my career, to leave a job not knowing where I was going next simply because I wanted to leave that job,” she says. 

“I think a lot of people who have always worked wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that with no safety net of knowing the next job is there to go to. 

“I find that sad, because I can see people not achieving their potential, because they feel limited by where they are.” 

Ide would like to see more of a sense within the sector that it is acceptable to take a career break or to make a move that isn’t necessarily about ‘progression’. “People tell me they can’t do it, and I say: ‘Actually, you can, I know because I’ve done it and the thing is, you do survive’.”

Topics:
Management

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