• David Lale

What can charities teach businesses?

We’re often being told that charities need to behave more like businesses. Be sharper, quicker on those decisions, not to run away from profit and generally to toughen up and get moving. Yet for all the rhetoric, there are also plenty of learning opportunities out there for companies willing to listen.

Knowing the customer

When I buy a pair of shoes, I hand over the cash and in return I expect a good service and a good pair of shoes. Simple. However in charity world things are more nuanced. The person providing the cash is a donor. That might be a government department, a trust fund (i.e. another charity), an individual donating directly to the charity or indeed a company. Whoever it is has some expectation of what they’re getting for their money – it might be measured in terms of social impact or it might be as simple as a feel good fuzziness. But it’s essential that the charity responds appropriately to this need – be it in terms of reporting back to the donor, thanking them or just being accountable for the money. Translate this back to my shoe shop and suddenly my payment for the shoes is much more than just the cost of the leather, it’s about how the staff are paid and treated, where the shoes are sourced from and how the company spends its money. It’s about openness, accountability and transparency. These are qualities that charities have to have to survive and many companies are just thinking about. So that’s the money part. The second part of the transaction is the product itself. Charities have to know the donor and service their expectations but also look after the beneficiary too. In my shoe shop example, that’s me – standing there with them on. The service has to be delivered well and meet my expectations, irrespective of who has paid for it. My needs have to be assessed and catered for even if I can’t articulate them particularly well. The ability to assess the needs of the customer and not to judge them, to know them without intrusively pushing yourself on them and to respect their wishes rather than always trying to sell across the range – the charity sector has these skills.

Believing in the mission

Charities are formed around a mission – often a particular social need that isn’t being met elsewhere, and the organisation is built around it. Money follows as awareness builds and the case is made. Persuading people to give up their time or to donate means constantly proving the need for the organisation and being prepared to share how it’s doing in tackling the issue. This helps keep charities focused on their mission and to engender a strong culture around it too. Campaigning organisations in particular attract people who are deeply passionate about the causes upheld by the organisation. Levels of staff engagement and volunteer engagement are consequently often very high. Compare this to many companies who are constantly seeking ways to re-engage their teams – ironically often turning to company volunteering days at a local charity to help, but completely failing to ask the right question of the charity. Instead of asking ‘can we paint your day centre’ they should be asking ‘tell us how to build a mission that our people believe in.’

The value of volunteering

All of which brings me on to the value of volunteering. Not many people realise how often you actually volunteer in your corporate day job. Anytime you work unpaid beyond your contracted 35 hours a week – you’re a volunteer! Welcome. Are you recognised for that? Does your company thank you, train you, make sure you’re safe? Charities have developed highly sophisticated skills in managing volunteers – ensuring people have the opportunity to do work that is rewarding and stretching and to know that their contribution is highly valued even when unpaid. Charities recognise that because of the sensible and strategic use of volunteers they can turn £1 of spend into £10 or more of social impact. The management of volunteers is a delicate balance of understanding the needs of the volunteer, agreeing some ground rules for how the work is going to be carried out and ensuring that there are proper opportunities for training and development on hand too. Charities are increasingly recognising the value of using skilled volunteers – from companies in particular who are active in their local communities. So if you’re wondering how you can start down the path of tapping into the wisdom of charities, I’d strongly suggest you take a look at developing a skilled volunteering programme in your own organisation. The opportunity for your marketing, finance, operations and logistics or your HR teams to add their expertise and insight to a charity is well documented. But less so is the opportunity for your teams to learn something too from the process and re-think how your own company might benefit from embracing some of that charity ethos too. You might even think about opening your doors to charity leaders, able to help you learn and develop insight along some of these areas too.


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