Five ways charity leaders can make better decisions

Ahead of the Social CEOs awards, charity digital guru Zoe Amar shares learnings from five charity leaders on what makes effective digital decision-making.

Guest Writer | 21st Sep 18
Image shows an organisational leader talking to her team. Zoe Amar spoke to 5 charity leaders about better decision-making.

Last week Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, summarised his job: “As a senior executive, you get paid to make a small number of high-quality decisions. Your job is not to make thousands of decisions every day.”

The ability to make good decisions which create a positive impact is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. However, it’s easier said than done when it comes to charity leadership. Many of the CEOs I speak to worry about the consequences of getting it wrong. We’ve all heard cautionary tales of charities who regret choosing the wrong supplier to build their website or signing off on a costly digital product that didn’t work out.

Making the right decisions about digital will help charity leaders be remembered as a success, creating foundations which those who come after can build on. And it’s a quality which is now sought after across the sector. Strong digital leadership is a key theme of The Charity Digital Code of Practice and it’s recognised by the Social CEOs awards.

I asked three charity leaders for their insights into what could help their peers make sound decisions about digital.


1- Understand the context

Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, outlines three challenges that charities face when making decisions- limited resources, the need for speed and operating in an uncertain climate:

“As well as testing decision-making, the external environment can move at a pace that seriously tests our capacity. Yet charities must see these as galvanising forces.”

Neate says: “It’s really important to make sure our people understand why we need to react to this, when it’s pushing them outside their comfort zone.”


2- Break old habits

We’re living in an age of huge disruption. The world is changing rapidly, from the political landscape to the way we shop, bank and donate.

Image shows lightbulb smashed representing the breaking of new habits.

David Barker, founder and consultant at Thrive Consulting, and previously CEO of Crohn’s and Colitis UK, says charities must make decisions differently to keep pace:

“I think the biggest challenge for many is that too many decisions are made on purely historical context alone (ie we’ve done it this way in the past and here is what we have learnt from it),” he told me. “To deliver greatest possible impact, decisions need to be based on where you want to be in the future rather than where you are now. This requires different thinking – some crystal balling, clear and concise facts and an ability to be bold and visionary.”

What can your senior team do to shake up the way it makes decisions? Even small changes like holding meetings in a different location or switching up your normal agenda may help. But to really get everyone thinking big you could borrow a technique from Google called 10x thinking, where the team aim to improve something by 10 times, not 10%. If your charity could do anything it wanted to achieve its mission, what would it do?


3- Don’t overthink 

Kate Collins, CEO of Teenage Cancer Trust, believes that there is an art to making decisions as a leader.

“Keeping things simple & focussed – and doing that in the right time frame – is the biggest challenge. Most leaders are struggling with information overload and ‘turning that information into the insight needed to underpin decisions can create complexity – or a sense of complexity – which means simplicity gets lost.”

To keep decision-making tight and focused your senior team could put in place a clear set of criteria or principles. I met someone from a big tech company who said that they evaluate possible courses of action on three simple things: whether they will make money, save money or give their customers a better experience.

Image shows a man looking for the simplest solution through a maze.

Barker recommends that every charity leader ask themselves these three questions when making decisions about digital:

  • Where do we want to be? – rather than this is where we are
  • How can digital/technology help us achieve this?
  • How will this decision benefit and make the greatest possible impact for our beneficiaries? (or put differently If I could only do 3 things to deliver greatest impact would this be one of them?)

A simple framework like this makes decisions quicker and easier.


4- Insight, insight, insight

The groundwork that your team do ahead of making a big decision about digital is vital.  Neate recommends that charity leaders ensure projects are properly scoped. Time and resource should be set aside for pilots. “Don’t skimp on testing, and take the time to understand your requirements at the start,” she advises.

Charity leaders should take advice from their teams and stay close to what their beneficiaries and supporters want. Collins believes that, “the knack lies in being confident that as a leader you are sufficiently connected to the expertise in your teams – even if not a subject-matter expert yourself; to the needs of your beneficiaries (why you exist); and your supporters (how you exist) to be able to take a risk, back a decision and own things if they don’t work.”

Leaders must ask themselves who they are ultimately accountable to. Collins says: “Can I explain this working – or not working – to the people who needed us to try or the people whose fundraising made it possible?” is my touch-stone.”


5- Be prepared to delegate

All three charity leaders said that careful thought must be given to delegation and that the appropriate systems, accountabilities and processes should be put in place.

Neate told me that, “Delegating should mean that you have agreed the parameters so that you will be confident in the result. It means that the result will not be the same as if you’d done it yourself. Deal with it.”

Trustees should be on board with where the charity is going with digital but in a way that fits with their role.

“Trustees don’t need (and shouldn’t have) operational detail but need to understand and be reassured that you have the right systems/processes in place to deliver on the organisational strategy/plans/goals,” says Barker.

In his interview last week Bezos said that he aims to make just three good decisions a day. Charity leaders must ask themselves where they can add the most value in making decisions about digital, and if they have empowered their team and put the right accountabilities in place to drive real change.