Being a business mentor to charity leaders

Pilotlight is a charity which connects Pilotlighters (its business members) with charities to unlock solutions that help them become more effective and sustainable. Since 2003 the charity has worked with more than 1,800 Pilotlighters like myself who have served as mentors and coaches for over 800 charities and social enterprises in the UK, all tackling disadvantage.

A large proportion of Pilotlighters return year after year to participate in this shared learning experience. Indeed it is a two-way process as will become apparent, involving a recognition by business mentors of the achievements of charity leaders so far.

Let me first tell you about myself to show what business people like me can and do bring to the table. I am a Pilotlighter who has coached the leaders of five youth, welfare and community charities, each time forming part of a team of other private and public sector leaders.

I am CEO of Smartstream Reference Data Utility, a company which delivers data to financial institutions. I was a long-serving manager at Thomson Reuters, latterly running its $6bn global business providing services and technology to the financial services industry. As my commitment to Pilotlight deepened, I joined the board of trustees of the charity.

Synthesis of skills

My experience of coaching five charity leaders has shown me that the skills for success in business are almost identical to those for running a charity. There is a constant focus on revenue. Perhaps I was naïve because, at first, it shocked me how much time and effort go into funding.

Each charity has been completely different but in every case it has been seeking to secure funding either through contracts, grants or donations to enable it to continue and help more beneficiaries. With each charity I’ve been part of a team of business coaches whose key role was giving the charity chief the space to brainstorm about where they’d like to take the charity. Sometimes our greatest value has been to give them courage in their convictions when facing difficult decisions that require significant changes.

One charity leader who I have tremendous respect for is Fiona Stobart, CEO at Hospice at Home Carlisle and North Lakeland. Just like me and leaders of any business, a charity chief is constantly faced with short term issues and Fiona has spoken openly about the risk of losing sight of the longer term strategy.

Having a dedicated team of coaches and a project management team behind her gave her the focus and structure to channel her passion, to think big and implement changes. Seeing the benefits of long term strategic planning for each charity reaffirms and supports my approach to future-proofing my own business.

Remembering the charitable context

Then there is the need for business mentors not to lose awareness of the charitable context. As Gillian Murray, the CEO of Pilotlight, says: “In my experience, business people new to the charity sector need to be reminded that social objectives are the key driver for charities. Otherwise there’s a risk that a business perspective may lead them to look for growth for growth’s sake. Understanding that growth is not the only, or best measure of success for a charity is fundamentally important.

“The key question is, is the charity more effective in making a difference to the lives of those it was set up to serve? That said, the very fact that business people are coming from a different perspective means they ask a lot of questions – and charities may find it really useful (if occasionally uncomfortable) to have to articulate in the clearest possible, and ideally succinct, way what the difference is that they are trying to make.”

I’ve worked with many different business leaders who’ve successfully coached charities and no matter how senior they are in their career, they have all been continual learners. So much so that some business leaders have confessed to feeling nervous at the start of a charity engagement because they feel there’s so much they don’t know about the sector.

Stepping out of your bubble

There’s no greater way to develop your own leadership skills than stepping out of whatever professional bubble you’re in and immersing yourself in a different set of challenges and approaches. With the exception of the specifics of charity fundraising, I’ve not needed to have much prior knowledge or to do many things differently in order to give realistic and workable advice to charities, particularly because the project managers at Pilotlight have plugged any sector specific gaps. I had expected to need to adapt my usual style or traverse a minefield of differences and sensitivities.

On every Pilotlight programme I’ve learnt from the highly varying approaches and personal styles of the respective charity leaders as well as my fellow business coaches. Particularly when one has spent a long time in the same organisation, role or sector, this rare opportunity to broaden your perspectives and see how different leaders think about challenges is very eye-opening.

One colleague told me that the experiential learning on the Pilotlight Programme was far more incisive than a leadership course at INSEAD that he’d recently taken. The different perspectives I’ve witnessed among civil society leaders have opened my eyes and made me think harder about challenges in my own work environment.

Mission-driven leadership

I enjoy bringing teams together to solve difficult problems. Every professional achievement of mine has involved a group effort. When working with the best charity leaders, I have been impressed at how deftly they have rallied their staff around shared values and interests. Commercial leaders can learn a lot from charities about aligning staff behind a mission in order to motivate them and get the best results. We’re increasingly hearing of businesses which adopt a campaigning mentality and charities are an obvious source of best practice and inspiration in this regard.

Charity leaders’ broad range

Many in the business world rise to great seniority by continually developing deeper expertise in a particular business function or sector yet they often don’t get enough exposure to executive level decision making. The charity leaders I’ve worked with demonstrate great business range as they rarely rely on an army of specialist managers in HR, legal and marketing for example. Depending on the societal issues they address they also need to have a clear understanding of many different networks and systems – from the business world to central and local government.

Gaining a broad “systems view” of the complex environment in which their partner charity operates is something that will be invaluable as business leaders progress to the board table. For other business coaches, working for a sustained period with a charity leader is ideal preparation for non-exec director and advisory roles.

Low margin for error

Many charities operate under extreme uncertainty or even existential threat. This drives them to closely monitor their external climate and seek to influence it. How many businesses can truly say they operate under such pressure that one unfavourable external decision could see them go under? Commercial leaders should also scan their external environment and conduct scenario planning, even when no apparent crisis looms.

Customer service and change management

An impressive charity leader who I have learnt from is Jackie Snape, CEO at Disability Action Yorkshire. The charity had been running a residential disability centre and everything the residents were telling them was that residential care was not what people wanted. She was looking strategically at care for people in their homes.

Jackie’s customer-centric approach and her mantra of imploring service users to “tell us what you want, and we will help you find it” rivals the best customer service initiatives I’ve seen in the commercial world. Her consultative approach to handling change was very impressive and necessarily so, as she is dealing with people’s lives. This gave me great food for thought.

Appreciating the charity sector

My biggest surprise in my early experience as a Pilotlighter was a newfound appreciation of the scale of the charity sector and the fact that the passion and professionalism of the leaders I’d met had exceeded my already high expectations. Engaging with their different challenges and seeing the passion and dedication of charity leaders continue to be enjoyable, rewarding and inspiring.

Matchmaking and facilitation

The relationship between charities and business supporters needs to work both ways. Businesses are getting much smarter about how they work with charities. Each of us is generally time poor and wants to make the greatest impact in a small amount of time so it is important for us to be matched with the right charity and to ensure the interaction is carefully facilitated.

It’s easy to underestimate the effort needed to keep a sustained engagement between a charity and business leaders on track. As well as appealing to businesses’ desire to do the right thing and contribute to community causes, it’s important to recognise that business people are likely to learn a great deal from you in the process.


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