Matt Stevenson-Dodd: Charity leaders rely too much on gut feeling

There remains a tendency to lean on instinct rather than using data to help make decisions

Trust Impact, the social impact and data business I founded after 20 years as a charity chief executive, is five years old this week.

During this time, I have had the privilege of working alongside the CEOs, boards and senior teams of more than 90 incredible organisations in the charity, public and private sectors, and have spoken to and advised a lot more.

This has given me a unique vantage point from which to observe the inner workings of leadership and organisational effectiveness of those seeking to create social change, both in the public and private sectors.

Here are the top three insights I have gleaned from this experience.

Senior teams are generally not aligned on their core purpose

We ask the senior teams and boards of the organisations we work with to describe what they think the core purpose of the organisation is in eight words or fewer.

The results are always fascinating. All too often each member of the leadership will have a different view of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

With everyone having different versions of success, no wonder measuring the impact becomes complicated.

The reasons for misalignment are many: from the siloed nature of departments to a disconnect between management and frontline staff, or simply a world where resources are stretched and the team just hasn’t had time for the conversation.

The result is a workforce pulling in different directions, often without even realising it – ironically, making their job harder than it needs to be.

Social impact is over-complicated and not at the heart of strategy

In an effort to be comprehensive, there’s often a tendency to create convoluted impact measurement strategies that are impressive on paper but less effective in practice.

True social impact is not measured by the complexity of strategies but by the clarity and depth of change they produce.

Simplifying social impact doesn’t mean setting the bar lower – it means setting a clear, achievable core purpose and outlining the three to five key outcomes that will tell you if you are successfully achieving that purpose.

By keeping things simple, placing social impact at the heart of strategy and stripping away unnecessary complexity, organisations can make a more significant and measurable difference to the people and communities they serve.

Social impact leaders are still relying on gut feeling rather than data

The third and perhaps most surprising lesson is the enduring reliance on gut feeling over hard data among social impact leaders.

In an age where data is king, there remains a tendency to lean on instinct rather than collecting and using social impact data to help make decisions.

This has its roots in the fast-paced nature of decision-making required at the top, and the historic complexity of collecting and using impact data – but things are changing.

The ability to collect and analyse impact data in real-time, and at low cost, is well and truly here to stay and means there is now no excuse not to use data as part of the decision-making process.

Let’s take the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust – a charity that takes young people who have had cancer treatment on a five-day sailing trip with a view to helping them believe in a brighter future living through and beyond cancer.

The charity checks the young person’s wellbeing before and immediately after the trip with a follow-up three months later.

The results are astonishing – a bounce in wellbeing after the trip, as expected, but higher scores sustained across all measures three months later, showing the charity is making a lasting change.

What’s more, it can monitor where it is not making as much impact and pivot its services in real-time with all the data shown live on its website in complete transparency.

Too many leaders are still running their organisations looking in the rear-view mirror – relying on retrospective evaluation reports and a gut feeling that things are going OK, rather than live impact data to help inform their everyday decisions.

Reflecting on half a decade of leadership at Trust Impact reveals much about the evolving nature of organisational leadership across sectors.

The necessity for team alignment around a shared purpose, the imperative for simplicity in social impact strategies, and the need to use data alongside gut feeling stand out as the cornerstones of effective leadership.

Matt Stevenson-Dodd is chief executive of the consultancy Trust Impact

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