28th October, 2011

The eight scariest charity horrors

As we approach the witching hour on Halloween, beware the nightmares that await your charity if it commits these horrors:

1. Mission drift

You need to diversify income, you secure a contract, and another; maybe you don’t quite have the capacity and infrastructure to be able to cope, but you’ll manage somehow won’t you?

Before you know it, you wake up drenched in sweat struggling to remember what it is your charity is trying to achieve.

But how scary can it get?

Trustees can be held personally liable for any losses that arise from acting outside of your objects.  Look very carefully at why your organisation was set up in the first place.  Are your charitable objects as relevant today as the day they were written? If not, changing your governing document may be required (you may be eligible for pro-bono legal advice through LawWorks).

2. No clear plan on how overheads are funded

This is one of the quickest ways to find yourself in the ghastly situation of insolvency.  Do your accounts report a surplus on restricted funds and a deficit on unrestricted funds?  If the answer is yes, you need to find a way to fund core costs before the whole thing comes crashing in.  I think there are three main routes out of this nightmare (which can be combined when things get truly frightful):

  • Increase unrestricted income (through donations, events or earned income). You might want to think about packaging core costs as a proposition.
  • Adopt a full-cost recovery approach to your grants and contracts so that the budget reflects the full cost of delivery.  Acevo has a great toolkit to help you identify your true costs (now only available to members).
  • Reduce your overheads.

3. Failing to determine and meet the needs of your beneficiaries

You’ve identified a shocking problem in your client group.  You’ve done some research and found statistics to evidence the problem.  Someone has a great idea for a project to solve it.  But wait! … Before things get truly terrifying you must find out if your idea is likely to help people to overcome the challenges at hand.  Evidence can be gathered as part of a needs analysis, through consultations with beneficiaries, drawing on evidence from other projects, and running pilots with robust monitoring and evaluation.

4. No clear line of sight between organisational strategy and individual work plans

If there’s no clear path between your overall strategic plan, your team operational plans and individual employee objectives then your strategy is a shocker and not worth the paper it’s written on.

At the very least, start every planning session – whether for team or individual objectives – with a reminder of what the organisation is aiming to achieve and check that the agreed objectives will help to meet these goals.  Better still, have a document (or an Excel spreadsheet, which will enable you to apply filters) that maps out responsible parties and timescales, for each year of your strategy’s duration.

I have a solution that may put an end to your planning horrors, through a partnership with WePlanWell, an online tool that simplifies the building, management and reporting of strategic plans.  What I find most impressive is the effortless way the tool maps objectives and key performance indicators from vision right down to individual work-plans; progress at every level can be reported at the click of a mouse.

5. No board level reporting on whether your project makes a difference

When monitoring and evaluation is done solely to satisfy funders, you’re heading down a dark alley of doom.  Many charities struggle to identify and monitor outcomes.  What’s more scary for me is the organisations who have developed good monitoring systems and then fail to use the evidence as a learning tool.  The agenda item that all trustees should look forward to is the impact report.

6. Trustees undermining the Chief Executive by getting involved in operational decisions

When Trustees are not confident of their responsibilities it can be tempting to spend time in meetings debating where to advertise a project or what type of printer to buy.   Keep this ghastly activity out of your boardroom.  Decisions such as this must be delegated to the staff team, led by the Chief Executive.

7. Putting staff jobs ahead of the needs of beneficiaries

Many charities are facing the grizzly reality of ongoing cuts in funding.  This can necessitate some agonising decisions.  No one wants to make staff redundant.  But your duty is to your beneficiaries, not retaining staff jobs.  Decisions must be based on how you can effectively deliver your charitable objects with the funding available (and then how you can work towards sustainability).

8. Failing to deal with bad behaviour or poor performance

This can be a beast of a problem for most managers.  The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem and then plot a way to vanquish the monster.

Frankly, I’m running out of metaphors but here’s a nice article on how you can tackle poor performance.  As for bad behaviour (e.g. bullying and intimidation) immediate action is required, as directed by your disciplinary and grievance policy (you have one of those right?).  Acas have a great factsheet on how to manage discipline and grievances at work.


One final metaphor and I’m done for a year … don’t be scared, get in touch if you want to talk about how I can help you to overcome any of these nightmare situations (okay that was two).

Happy Halloween!


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