Stella Smith: Retaining values and being business-like are not mutually exclusive

This is no zero-sum game, writes our columnist: it is a mistake to use our ethics to resist change

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

I’ve always had great respect for people who work to achieve something, not for the money, the glamour or the status, but because they believe it's the right thing to do. These people and their ethics are what the charity sector is all about. It’s why funders give us money and members join us. We are regularly being reminded of the importance of our values and principles, so it’s no surprise that the latest draft of the revised Code of Good Governance includes recommendations that trustees take responsibility for ensuring charities behave ethically.

When the seas are calm and we have the time and resources to think clearly, it’s easy to check our decision-making and actions are in keeping with our values. But as we all know, the seas are anything but calm at the moment. We have to think and act fast, making decisions with imperfect information and conflicting demands. We are in direct competition with commercial enterprises for contracts and with each other for funding. External regulators want to see manuals of procedures and consistency of approach. We need to check and double check, constantly aware of tabloids ready to pounce if we don’t get it right. It is no longer enough to be well intentioned; we have to be hard-nosed, agile, business-like.

And that’s where many of us charity stalwarts begin to feel uneasy. In theory, few of us would argue with the need to professionalise, but in everyday reality it doesn’t really motivate us. As anyone who has ever tried to implement organisation-wide processes will know, charity people are independently minded. We like to do things our own way. As a rule, we’re not inspired by corporate processes, performance-managing staff or completing monitoring returns. We shy away from implementing procedures because we aspire to have an open and sharing environment, working with people who share our perspectives.

So changes to professionalise or make us more efficient are often greeted by sighs of disappointment. With every restructure, you can hear people muttering "what does this mean for our community ethos" and "what kind of organisation are we becoming?" It can feel like we are being pulled between being true to our values and adopting more business-focused practices.

But being business-like and retaining values are not mutually exclusive. It is not a zero-sum game where you choose one or the other. Getting bigger does not mean we suddenly forget what is important. Change is unsettling, but it is necessary. Whether we like it or no, is not the question. The alternative is to risk becoming isolated, ethically admirable but unable to relate to and influence the wider world.

What we should be asking ourselves is how we keep true to our ethics and values and become more business-like at the same time. Tempting though it is to ignore pleas from the central office to submit monitoring information or overlook one-to-one meetings with our team, we need to understand the implications of us not becoming more business-like. The sector’s values and ethics are our greatest strength, but if we mistakenly use them as a basis to resist change, they could also become the reason for our downfall.  

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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