Stella Smith: It's time to meet new challenges in new ways

In 2018, we need to rethink some of our well-established sector practices and traditions writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

There's nothing like the festive season to remind us of the value of tradition. Whether it be singing along to classic Christmas tunes, pulling crackers or enjoying turkey, there is something comforting about age-old rituals.

Over time, though, established practices change. Nowadays, festive parties and secret Santas seem to be customary across workplaces, and fewer of us watch the Queen's speech or go to church. The old new year tradition of London crowds crushed into Trafalgar Square has been replaced by a more orderly, ticketed event, where choreographed fireworks are broadcast to the world. Traditions serve a purpose and fall out of fashion when they stop being relevant or useful. The charity sector has many traditional habits and practices: in 2018, which of these might cease being relevant to the challenges we face?

Even with the unpredictable events of recent years, I think it is pretty safe to say that many of the challenges we faced in 2017 are likely to continue to affect charities. There will be pressure to keep overheads low, with tough competition for funds and strict requirements for evidence of impact. Charities will be expected to be close to the ground, able to provide timely, valuable insights and have the expertise to respond rapidly to need. In some ways, the sector is well placed to meet these expectations but it will have to rethink some well-established practices, particularly with regard to how we develop our staff and volunteers and how we make decisions.

For too long the sector has been reticent about investing in skills development. There is still a fairly widespread assumption that we either don't need to develop our skills or it is something of a luxury we cannot afford. To nurture managers and staff who can confidently respond to the challenges coming our way, we need to change our approach and realise that we cannot afford not to invest in skills development. That doesn't mean everyone disappearing for days full of training, but looking at how we can creatively incorporate learning into everyday work. This could include, for example, online learning, coaching, mentoring, secondments and shadowing both within and across organisations.

We also need to rethink how we make decisions. Too often we expect decisions, especially on contentious issues, to be taken only by senior staff. This leads to a bottle-neck at upper management levels while staff and volunteers wait around for decisions to be made - a surefire way to demotivate and deskill smart people. At the same time, our concerns about keeping everyone consulted and in the loop prompt many of us to copy others liberally into every email that might be of interest. Of course we need to consult critical stakeholders, but we do need to trust people to get on and make decisions.

There are many ways of working that are so woven into the fabric of our daily work lives that we hardly notice them, but they significantly affect our effectiveness. If we are to be ready to meet the challenges of the coming years, we need to step back and review our long-held habits. Let's start by skilling up and trusting our people to make decisions - and, in doing so, enable them to get on with the jobs they were recruited to do.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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