When I joined the sector back in 2008, I was struck by how many information-sharing groups there were. Previously I had spent years working in a cut-throat part of the corporate world, where there was little sharing of best practice unless it was on a training course.
I’m proud to work in a sector where forums to share ideas and peer learning are a hallmark of how we operate. However, having been part of many of these groups I know they are not easy to get right; they can lose momentum or become mired in politics.
Yet they are vital for charities to share skills and experience, develop opportunities to work together on new products and services, pitch for funding and avoid duplication.
Digital became an imperative for charities during the pandemic, whether it was online services or using digital tools to communicate. Some of the charity leaders I have been speaking to feel that there is a new spirit of collaboration in the sector and I wanted to find out whether this has invigorated the forums that many of us are part of.
Getting these right will help stretch our resources further as the sector rebuilds, and will reveal opportunities to generate income and help more people.
Here’s what the charity leaders I’ve spoken to would advise to make your group a success.
Have a clear sense of purpose
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the charity KIDS, which provides services to disabled children, young people and their families, helped set up the Digital Services Consortium, a group for leaders in children’s charities including Sense.
Katie and her fellow group members were brought together by shared concerns about reaching disabled and seriously ill children and their families during lockdowns. They wanted to meet this challenge jointly.
Ghose says: “We had to rapidly innovate to develop and deliver online spaces, without a model or game plan in place. We had a feeling that leaders would appreciate a space to share and learn fast how best to maximise people’s access to services as well face other challenges – and we were right.”
Establish collective aims
These groups perform their best when they have an appetite to work together towards shared goals. Ghose’s group found common ground, which helped them agree on what they wanted to achieve together.
In my experience, getting group members to open up will lead to better discussions about your strategy.
Ghose and her colleagues shared their successes and failures. She says this led to the group becoming “a strong platform to share emerging good practice, research and case studies with government officials and other key individuals and organisations with the power to tackle the digital disadvantage faced by many disabled children and families.”
They are now working together on an innovative digital inclusion programme specifically for disabled or seriously ill children, young people and their families.
Once you have goals in place, Ghose advises conducting regular sense checks, such as reviewing members’ priorities and interests, and being prepared to evolve the group as needed.
Think about how to engage people
Your group might have a specific purpose of sharing information or lobbying government. Yet the pandemic has changed our expectations around bringing our whole selves to work and people want to engage with people first, then process.
Stuart Murphy, chief executive of the English National Opera, set up a weekly video call with the chief executives of other big arts charities during lockdown. He encourages other leaders to embrace their “humanity” when participating in similar groups.
This can be good for leaders’ wellbeing by tapping into their motivation. “It’s been inspiring to work closely with people running incredible organisations, having them open up every week, hear how they want to enrich the world, like we do at the ENO, and the passion they have for their people and their companies,” Murphy told me.
Charity working groups, galvanised by digital and the disruption of the past 18 months, might just be the thing that helps us all deliver greater impact and become more sustainable. Remote working has made the shape of organisations more nebulous and, done right, these networks can help us achieve far more together than we would on our own.
Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar