Stella Smith: How to keep a fresh perspective in your charity

It is easy for long-standing staff to get stuck in a rut, so we must regularly ask ourselves whether we are still delivering what our beneficiaries need, writes the charity strategy consultant

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

I was recently speaking to the senior manager of a charity who told me proudly about how low its staff turnover is. It left me thinking: is that really such a great thing? Are long-standing staff always an asset?

Some people can stay in the same role for years and be consistently conscientious, hard-working and devoted to the cause; but that is by no means always the case. Many people stay in the same job because it’s convenient, it fits in with routines or the office is near home. Others stay because they have lost confidence and don’t want to apply for another job.

When people stay in the same place for a long time, they tend to get into a rut and start taking shortcuts. Expertise quickly gets outweighed by complacency: the world changes; the needs they are addressing change; but their approach does not.

When customers pay for a service, they can choose to take their business elsewhere if that service stops meeting their needs. The service then has to change or close down. Charities don’t get such immediate feedback. When our services are not meeting needs, people often have no choice but to continue using them.

So, it's up to us: if we want to do the best for our cause, we have to ask ourselves if we are really still delivering what’s needed. We have to look at what we’re doing from a different perspective; get some fresh ideas; and question whether the usual routines still work, or if our work needs new and different skills.

Of course it is uncomfortable. Nobody really likes change; but while the prospect of doing away with our comfy habits can feel daunting, it often brings unexpected benefits. New staff and different ways of working enable us to see things from a different perspective. We notice things we hadn’t seen before; and that brings the enthusiasm, drive, confidence and momentum which are essential to working in the charity sector.

So here are a few ideas on how to keep challenged and maintain that essential fresh perspective:

  • Invite people from different charities and even different sectors to meet your staff and talk about the challenges their organisation faces and its ambitions. Start a debate about what the similarities and differences are compared to your environment, and whether you could incorporate any of these lessons into your way of working.
  • Invest in learning and development, and keep people in the habit of learning new things. This doesn’t mean upping the training budget: look at the informal ways that people can learn new skills and knowledge, such as being coached or shadowing colleagues in different parts of the organisation.
  • Consider making it a requirement of that every member of staff spends time volunteering in a different part of the organisation. Having service delivery staff spend some time in the central office, or the accountant helping out in campaigning now and again can really open people’s minds to what’s happening in the wider world. 
  • Set up a secondment scheme. Actively encourage secondments to different organisations and invite people from different sectors to come and spend some time working in your organisation.

Stella Smith is a strategy consultant working with not-for-profit organisations in the areas of governance, strategy and change management

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