Zoe Amar: What we can learn from the next generation of charity leaders

A new generation of charity leaders are operating in very different ways from their predecessors, reflecting the changing nature of the sector

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

When Matt Collins of Platypus Digital and I co-founded the Social CEOs awards seven years ago, our aim was to recognise charity leaders who were using social media to fly the flag for their organisations, build networks and help their causes be more widely understood.

Over time, the awards have evolved to recognise digital leadership at all levels across the sector. And every year we learn something new from our winners about how the sector is changing.

At the awards ceremony last week I was chatting to two of our winners and was struck by how this new generation of charity leaders operate differently, whether it’s through ways of working, problem-solving or how they lead their teams. So what advice would they give to other charity leaders?

Think big and work together

The new wave of talented charity leaders are fearlessly ambitious about what they want their charities to achieve. Part of this is driven by how the world around them is shifting, including the evolving nature of both charities and supporter needs.

Kirsty McNeill, executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children UK, says: "People are building incredible rights and justice movements on their phones. We have a lot of work to do to persuade them that the operational scale, brand reach and support infrastructure of big organisations could help."

Be open to collaboration

Charities have their work cut out to stay relevant, and this means they need to earn trust by fighting even harder for social change and building the networks to do it. One of the characteristics we see every year with Social CEOs winners is that they major on collaboration. The added benefit of this is that it avoids duplication.

Maddie Stark, digital development officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, counsels charity leaders to re-use existing resources and ideas. She says: "There will be someone out there who has done it before. Don’t reinvent the wheel."

Embrace remote working

For these leaders, virtual teams are a way of life, and they’re using these new, more fluid ways of working to help their charities. Jon Arnold, chief executive of Tiny Tickers, which cares for babies with serious heart conditions, says that remote working has helped his organisation draw on a wide pool of talent across the UK. His team uses Skype, Slack, Trello and Google Docs to work closely together.

Arnold says: "We’re very transparent with our supporters about how small we are and how we use digital to run the charity. We’ve even done social media posts showing our desks and our pets, and posted photos of our team Skype calls. I think it’s great for supporters to see we are trying to keep our overheads low by embracing digital working."


All the leaders I spoke to for this piece are pioneering new ways of doing things and encouraging their charities to test, learn and improve their ideas. Going back to your charity’s original purpose and then being creative about how to achieve it will help charities to adapt and survive.

Emily Casson, digital marketing manager at Cats Protection, says: "Our team motto is ‘think big, start small and scale quickly’, and I think that approach is one all charity leaders can take, whatever the size of their organisation.

First, think big about how digital can transform every area of your organisation, then start with some small pilots and scale them if they work, and learn from them if they don’t." She adds that charity leaders need to get comfortable with failing, because innovation isn’t possible without it.

Don’t be afraid to challenge

What struck me when talking to winners is their healthy disrespect for traditional hierarchies and established ways of doing things. Dana Kohava Segal, chair of Emergency Exit Arts, told me: "When I think about leadership I always hear this quote from Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to take a seat in the US Congress, in my head: ‘If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’

"The amazing thing about digital is that it's much easier to pull up a folding chair online."

The attitudes and modi operandi of the new generation of charity leaders show how the charity sector is changing. I’m excited to see what they do next.

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