Subscribers | Charities Management magazine | No. 127 Summer 2019 | Page 1
The magazine for charity managers and trustees

Committing to charity agility

In an increasingly uncertain world, organisations must be able to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances if they are to survive and thrive, and charities are no exception. They need to be agile in the way they operate and for this to happen their leaders need to be agile in their thinking.

The concept of business or operational agility is not a new one, but it is one that is increasingly coming to the fore as organisations find themselves operating in an era of unprecedented change – and the charity sector is undoubtedly operating in an era of change, even unpredictability.

For those charities which get it right there are rich rewards to be gained from adopting an agile working culture and practices. An agile focus has been shown to help organisations work faster, better and deliver greater value – delighting customers, motivating staff and delivering results. Research suggests that agile organisations grow their output faster and generate better results than non-agile organisations.

What is operational agility?

There is a misperception that agile working revolves around practices such as flexi-working, hot-desking, remote working and job sharing. These may be present in an agile organisation but true operational agility is a much broader concept.

It is one that is concerned with the adoption and evolution of values, behaviours and capabilities that enable organisations and individuals to be more adaptive, creative and resilient when dealing with complexity, uncertainty and change, leading to improved wellbeing and better outcomes.

Bearing in mind that people often work in charities simply because they do not want to work in a traditional business environment, because the concept of operational agility is not linked to traditional management thinking (indeed quite the opposite) it should be very attractive to charity employees.

To be truly agile, a charity needs to operate in a very different way, with leadership, values and norms all reinforcing a culture of agility.

A typical agile charity is one which keeps strategy under constant review; allocates resource on a rolling basis; understands the importance of collaborating with all stakeholders, both internal and external; aligns change with strategic goals; and encourages small commitments with a defined value.

At chief executive and director level, agile thinking encourages innovation and flexibility in areas as diverse as human resources, budgeting and aligning activity to strategic goals. Again, charity managers below this level and other staff should be highly motivated by this operational approach.

Barriers to change

Adopting new ways of working and relinquishing traditional management techniques, such as command-and-control, can be difficult for any organisation – whether private, public or charity sector. But it can be particularly hard for charities, especially those with a long heritage and a culture that places emphasis on maintaining the status quo and avoiding risk.

There are some eminently understandable reasons why charities may favour a cautious approach. Trustees may be reluctant to sanction activities that they see as increasing risk. The age profile of the typical trustee may also mitigate against them adopting new workplace practices. According to the Charity Commission, the average age of trustees in England and Wales is 55-64, rising to 65-74 in smaller charities.

Furthermore, charities are conscious, and rightly so, that their supporters expect them to spend donations wisely and, for those receiving money from government bodies, the donors will want reassurance as to how the money will be spent.

Agility and governance

However, governance is not a negotiable aspect of agility. Control is essential to any organisation, but it is critical that governance stays as an enabler and doesn’t impede progress – or worse, become an end goal in itself.

In an agile environment, where there is a transparency around progress and results, stakeholders can see for themselves how things are going. Comparing which needs and objectives have now been met, against which needs and objectives are current priorities, ensures the charity’s focus stays current and relevant in a changing context for charities.

Charities need to continually review, looking back to see what’s been achieved, looking around at how the world now looks, and then reassessing priorities and goals.

The focus on innovation creates new ways of working and looking back as well as forward identifies what has worked well so that this can be embedded in standardised best practices.

Good governance is about understanding what is being controlled, and when it is useful to step in and intervene. It is also about knowing when intervention is not necessary. It is about asking the right questions and not being afraid to stop doing something if it adds no value. Agility requires discipline to be effective – as opposed to discipline being for the sake of it.

Introducing an agile culture

The actions of a charity’s leaders are fundamental to establishing agile culture and behaviour. But culture cannot be imposed; it has to be built organically, based on actions not words.

Here are some principles of agile leadership for charities:

  • ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. Agile leadership in charities is about not only driving and promoting change, it is also about being the change.
  • CHARITIES IMPROVE THROUGH EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK. Agile leaders lead the way by courageously seeking meaningful, useful and timely feedback from peers and other colleagues.
  • PEOPLE WORKING IN CHARITIES REQUIRE MEANING AND PURPOSE TO MAKE WORK FULFILLING. The work of the agile charity leader is to be aware of what is in the hearts and minds of their colleagues, then to unify and align those values into inspired action.
  • EMOTION IS A FOUNDATION OF ENHANCED CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION. Agile charity leaders inspire others in the charity to bring their best selves to work. They understand that emotion is an important part of the human experience, and when individuals work with their emotions, they achieve more of their potential. 
  • GREAT IDEAS CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE IN THE CHARITY. Agile leaders understand people who are close to a problem usually have the best ideas about how to solve it.

People are key

The importance of leadership as a catalyst for transforming both public, private and charity sector organisations is emphasised by Chris Roebuck, visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School London.

Stressing the importance of communication, collaboration and commitment, he says that at its most basic the key to galvanising staff is about bosses showing they care about the people who work for them.

“Getting success is mainly emotional,” he says. “It’s about creating an environment where people want to give of their best. Why should people care about their boss and the organisation if their boss and the organisation haven’t cared about them?”

It does work

Although the idea of delivering value by engaging with staff may sound “woolly”, the benefits for charities are most certainly not.

Traditional command and control environments leave people feeling under-motivated and disengaged as they have little say in how they do their work, and no feeling of autonomy, pride or empowerment. A recent Gallup survey found only 15% of employees worldwide felt engaged at work with productivity suffering as a consequence.

Meantime, long hours, rigid hierarchies, office politics, a fear-based culture and a challenging economic environment are leaving people feeling burnt out. According to UK government figures, in 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases, and 45% of all working days that were lost due to ill health.

Charities are not exempt from the problem of employee stress. Not only do the stress related issues we are talking apply to charities, but charities are also faced with their own escalating burdens which put greater pressures on staff. There is the considerable increase in the task for charities to undertake due to the growing number of clients they have to help.

There is also pressure on staff in charities caused by the undertaking of contracts with government agencies, public bodies and local government. Performing these contracts - because of the pressures to meet certain requirements coming from outside their own operational structure - can be quite daunting for staff unless operational agility is brought into play.

Tightening budgets a problem

Also, for charities, as with other organisations, tightening budgets often mean people are being asked to do more with less.

By contrast, organisations which take a person-centric approach outperform those which don’t. We have known this for a while now, for example:

  • Organisations which focus on passion, purpose and all stakeholder group interests do better than those which don’t.
  • Organisations which foster trust, pride and camaraderie perform better than those which don’t.
  • Happiness makes people more productive.
  • Engaged employees are more productive than those who are not – and inspired employees do even better for their organisations.

These are all aspects of operational agility, and for operational agility to happen in charities there has to be agile leadership. It is a challenge for charity leaders to take up.


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