What business can learn from charities: Javed Khan, CEO Barnardo's

Authentic and inspirational leadership is a must when half your workforce could walk away at any minute.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 28 Nov 2016

Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan has a bone to pick with us. He remembers a certain MT cover feature from October 2015 that declared charities to be in the depths of a serious crisis of trust.

‘It seems to be open season on the charity sector at the moment,’ Khan smiles. ‘I don’t buy into it. I don’t think there’s a crisis.’

That’s maybe easy for him to say. Barnardo’s wasn’t one of the charities riven by scandal – Kids Company or BeatBullying come to mind. And what of the dreaded chuggers, whose harassment-by-guilt has led to a clamp-down by over a hundred local authorities?

‘This isn’t a time to think phew we got away with it, it’s an issue for all of us,' he says, adopting a more conciliatory tone. 'We need to wake up to it and rebuild public trust and confidence.’

In many respects charities have an even harder time managing their reputations than businesses do. You expect companies to chase profit, so when they demonstrate a purpose that goes beyond that, it reflects well on them. Charities on the other hand are expected to do the maximum amount of good; any deviance from that is judged mercilessly.

This creates a conundrum around professionalism – it’s necessary to run an effective organisation, but in a voluntary organisation people find it distasteful.

It’s time to get over that, says Khan, whose organisation has income of £300m a year, with an ‘industry-leading’ 91p in every £1 donated going to beneficiaries.

‘The majority of the Barnardo’s board has previous private sector experience. I’m learning a huge amount from them. The charity sector has historically been a bit fluffy about identifying the difference we make – we’ve got anecdotes that can bring tears to your eyes but that’s not longer enough. We need to be more strategic and analytical about how we measure our impact, and the private sector is much better at that,’ says Khan.

That’s not to say the lessons only go one way. Khan believes there’s a thing or two charities can teach business too.

‘Everywhere else I worked, you sit in a leadership position, press a button and at some point down the chain someone’s going to do something because of the button you pressed. That doesn’t apply to the charity sector. This is all about hearts and minds, whether for employees or volunteers. They can vote with their feet very quickly.’

Charity CEOs therefore need to be masters of that HR department holy grail, inspirational leadership. The way they get there, says Khan, is less about delivering Henry V-esque speeches and more about demonstrating another business buzzword, authenticity.

‘It’s so important for the voluntary sector. If you’re not authentic they’ll sniff you a mile away, you’ve got no hope.’

When rising demand is a bad thing

Khan took an unusual route to running a children’s charity. He spent many years as a maths teacher in Birmingham, before moving to local government for 12 years and finally making the shift to the third sector when he became chief executive of Victim Support in 2010.

‘I don’t miss working directly for politicians,’ Khan confesses. ‘Politicians, bless them, have good intentions but they have an electoral mandate that comes around very quickly. Their mindset shifts to re-election so the conversation about future policy gets diverted, shall we say.’

While the nature of Khan’s job means he still has to navigate the winds of political fortune – the state contributes over a third of the sector’s revenues – he intends to reduce dependence on the government. Barnardo’s has a ten-year plan which he hopes will double its voluntary income.

‘All the research shows the demand for our services will increase. We think we’ll be supporting 25% more children year on year, millions more children,’ Khan says. Among the causes are increases in family breakdown, child poverty and even the rise in self-employment and the gig economy. ‘Those are ingredients - unintended consequences is a generous way of putting it.’

The ability to take such a long-term view is another asset of the voluntary sector, Khan says. Barnardo’s trustees serve for up to three three-year terms simply because they care about the work it does, meaning ‘nothing gets in the way of the discussion’.

But what’s good long-term for Barnardo’s might not be good for the thousands of other charities competing for the same donations. It’s a zero-sum game with 170,000 players – so does that mean it’s time for a spot of rather uncharitable consolidation?

‘I don’t think the current model is sustainable, there isn’t enough resource in the system. Some of them are literally one person bands. Their intentions are really good but they create a huge sense of duplication. I’m not saying they should disappear – it’s important that local providers of services also exist, but what does exist mean? We really need to be complementary. We can work together, share the back office. It’s not the same as a merger, it’s about sharing.’

If that came from a private sector CEO you’d be forgiven for being a little cynical, but collaboration does genuinely seem to be engrained in the voluntary sector in a way it isn’t in business.

For instance, every two months, the bosses of the biggest five children’s charities meet for a couple of hours to discuss how they could work together – it’s somehow hard to imagine Tesco’s Dave Lewis, Sainsbury’s Mike Coupe, Asda’s Sean Clarke and Morrison’s Dave Potts doing the same.

IQ, EQ... CQ?

A British Kashmiri Muslim, Khan is the first non-white, non-Christian CEO in Barnardo’s 150 year history, and he’s unlikely to be its last. He believes managing diversity is going to be an essential leadership skill in the future, as demographic shifts in Britain and particularly London create a wider mix of cultural backgrounds in the workplace.

‘We’ve seen IQ and EQ. I think there’s a third "Q" coming along, CQ – cultural intelligence. How could anyone hope to lead an organisation in a city like London in the future without being culturally competent, without really understanding the nuances that exist for people? You can be bright in every other sense but if you’re not bright in your cultural understanding you will fail,’ Khan says.

We'll see if it catches on. In any case, Khan sees this cultural competence as being far more than a mere matter of traditional diversity.  ‘I could be black British Pakistani Kashmiri and so on, but have no understanding of diversity. Having this colour skin doesn’t mean I’m any use at understanding that.’

So what’s the trick? Getting diversity and inclusion right - in charities or in business - starts with looking inwards. ‘You’ve got to be conscious about your bias, challenge yourself as much as you challenge others. That’s quite hard to do.’


Unconscious bias: how can you stop judging books by their covers? 


Image credit: fhwrdh/Flickr

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