Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Charities must still speak truth to power, argues Chartered Management Institute Companion Dr John Low, even when they're delivering major public service contracts.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Politics is often seen as a dirty business, but all leaders need to be political in the way they manage staff and build networks. Leaders of charities, community organisations and social enterprises - the third sector - have a highly complex web of stakeholders to manage. A recent report by the Chartered Management Institute, Leading with Political Awareness, shows just how crucial political skills are in managing modern enterprises. It will touch a chord with leaders of third-sector organisations who know only too well that political skills are essential for maximising the potential of the many relationships on which the survival of their organisations can depend.

The fire in the belly of the third sector is its campaigning. It is impossible to be an effective third-sector leader without the passion to change the world. Effective campaigning clearly requires a great deal of political awareness. Colleagues say you have failed if you're not on first-name terms with three cabinet ministers. Leaders in this sector have to understand the context in which they are operating and the best ways to bring about change. We need to know the audience to be targeted and how to get the reaction that will make a difference to our cause.

A sector-wide working group led by Baroness Kennedy recently made recommendations that would allow charities to use political means in their campaigning - currently prohibited by charity and broadcast law. An environmental campaigning group, for example, cannot advertise on TV, whereas an oil firm can. Government is starting to listen, and this is welcome. Reforms would allow us to make more use of political means to bring about our charitable ends.

Many of the most effective campaigning organisations are delivering services for the Government through contracts - yet sometimes we are called on to speak truth to power. Managing this tension requires particular skills on the part of leaders in the sector. RNID, for example, ran a major campaign to transform the procurement of digital hearing aids by the NHS, which resulted in more than 1.5 million people benefiting from advanced hearing aid technology, free of charge. All the while, RNID was delivering a major change-management programme under contract to the Department of Health.

Independence is crucial, but preserving it is not best achieved by withdrawing from all interaction with Government. Strong political leadership from senior managers and charity trustees, successfully managing relations with our numerous and diverse stakeholders and always keeping the interests of our beneficiaries in mind, are key to preserving that independence.

The potential for conflict becomes most acute in the area of contracts to deliver public services for statutory authorities. Government has clear ambitions for more public services to be delivered by third-sector organisations. This is a big opportunity, since by delivering the services we can transform them, making them much more fit for purpose. But success depends on getting the relationships with the commissioner right.

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), which I chair, is the professional body for third-sector leaders. We recently published a report that found that key behaviours demonstrated by leaders who had been successful in the commissioning environment include building mutual understanding and respect, taking the initiative and holding your nerve when challenged, while having the courage to change behaviour.

As a sector, we have been guilty of assuming moral rectitude when it comes to such negotiations, but we are now learning how to bridge the gap between us and the commissioners. We must understand the pressures they are under and work towards a common goal.

But our partnerships are not only with public-sector commissioners. Many third-sector bodies are working with other providers to deliver services. Large national charities are teaming up with small community organisations, combining local knowledge with economies of scale.

Partnering private-sector organisations can bring about effective and efficient systems and processes, allowing us to help those with the most complex needs. The Charities Aid Foundation, for example, advises numerous businesses looking to work with small charities. Each partnership brings challenges of bridging cultural differences and striking common objectives, yet getting it right can transform the experience of public services for the most vulnerable.

The role of the third sector is changing, and, collectively, we need to manage our relationship with the public. Maintaining public trust in what we do and who we are helping must be a priority. Preserving that confidence is a job for each and every CEO in the sector. Acevo recognises that well-honed political skills are an essential part of every third-sector CEO's toolkit. But is it any less important for leaders in other sectors?

The executive summary of Leading with Political Awareness is available at

CV - Dr John Low is chairman of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo) and chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). He was previously chief executive of RNID. He joined the voluntary sector in 1999 after a 20-year career in the technology industry.

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