Be professional always, and businesslike in some ways

Valerie Morton offers advice on how charities can remain value-driven while cherrypicking business policies that fit well with the sector

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

Q: Is running a professional, businesslike organisation compatible with keeping the charity ethos?

A: Thank you for asking this question - it has been the subject of angst and confusion in the voluntary sector for many years. I believe it boils down to semantic confusion.

There is little understanding of the explicit and subtle differences between the expressions 'businesslike' and 'professional'. Charities should always act professionally. For example, they should have a clear strategy, robust processes and tight financial controls.

These features could also be described as businesslike, but charities must cherrypick the ways in which they behave like businesses. The private sector is characterised by an overriding profit motive and cultural attributes that reflect this, but neither of these would sit well in the voluntary sector, where the relationships between stakeholders and the charity are dramatically more complex and emotional.

Some charities have rightly, in their efforts to move away from the 'well-meaning amateurs' label of yesteryear, become more professional, but have also fallen into the trap of adopting business cultures and policies that simply don't fit well with our values-driven sector. Let me give you some examples.

The first is the thorny and current issue of expenses. I often hear people talking about the business case for booking expensive flexible travel tickets ("I don't know when my meeting will start/finish"), for booking first-class train seats ("I need some peace to be able to work") or for not shopping around for the cheapest deals ("It will cost more in the end when you take staff time into account").

What they don't realise is that many businesses these days would also appreciate the benefits of good old thrift. Many of our donors are people who would not dream of paying for a taxi when a bus or train would do and would certainly shop around before booking a flight. If we are prepared to take donations from those people, we owe it to them to make a few sacrifices ourselves. So we have an opportunity here to be businesslike and keep the ethos of charity.

The second example is about managing staff. Giving people targets and objectives is businesslike, professional and right for charities because it helps us make sure we are being effective. We need to follow this through by managing poor performance when it arises. Anyone who hides behind the charity mask on this one and feels it is not compatible with being nice to people is not being professional or businesslike - nor maintaining the charity ethos.

So the answer to your question is a resounding yes, but buy all your staff a dictionary.

Valerie Morton is a trainer, fundraiser and consultant

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