On this annual, international day of charity (5 September), Alton has been pondering how private sector, commercial organisations can learn from the third sector.
I spent a number of years working for a major charity. It was fascinating to hear people’s views of charities when they asked about my job. As I worked in the learning and development department, one person asked me if my job was showing people how to fold clothes in the charity’s shops! She seemed quite surprised when I explained that we didn’t have any shops. On another occasion I attended a networking event to meet with suppliers who might partner with us on leadership development. As I chatted to one supplier, he said, “I see you work for a charity. I don’t think there’s anything we can do for you”. Surprised, I explained that we employed over 8,000 people with a turnover of £200 million. I came away from the meeting pondering over people’s misconceptions of charities.
I’ve discovered that people I’ve met can think charities are small outfits with only a few paid employees who spend their time being nice, weaving yoghurt and not having to think about the business realities that affect their commercial cousins. The truth is so far away from this. Charities are dynamic, innovative and commercially focused businesses who need to achieve a lot, with often limited resources. And, they are businesses; if they don’t operate as one they will fail. Working for a charity we would often take the time to learn from the private sector, but what might the private sector learn from charities?
Charity employees aren’t usually at the high end of the pay scale compared to their commercial counterparts, but they are often fiercely loyal and stay around through the good times and the bad. It was common to meet colleagues at my charity with 10, 20 or even 30 years of service. I learned that they stay because they passionately buy-into the charity’s mission and vision. If you work in the private sector, do you have this buy-in to unleash your employees’ dedication? If not, what more could you do?
Having limited funding may appear a real challenge, but actually it’s a huge opportunity. My CEO’s mantra was, ‘Having no money is the mother of invention,’ and she wasn’t wrong. Each time we planned a project, we had to think about how we could achieve our outcomes for as little money as possible. This made us really innovative and led to better solutions than if we’d had bigger budgets. It may sound odd but ask yourself, ‘How can we do X if we have a much smaller budget’? This can lead to better solutions at a lower cost.
The beneficiaries of charities are their key customers. Without their support and involvement charities cannot achieve their aims. This means that charities keep close to these people and find many ways to listen to their voices and involve them in the day-to-day running of the business. This was sometimes challenging and generated a lot of debate due to a diverse range of customer opinions. However, taking our customers along with us on the journey, helped improve our effectiveness. How could you involve your customers in the running of your business? Could this help you become more effective?
Perhaps today is a good day to think about how you can learn from charities. To find out more why not spend some time getting to know one? If you have a charity partner, ask them if you can find out how they run their business. If you don’t, consider volunteering or becoming a charity trustee. Not only will you support a great cause, you may also learn some new tricks as well as sharing a few of your own.