Charities, leadership and productivity

By Rob Legge, Third Sector Coach

This week I was asked by a PhD student what I thought the biggest challenge for charities has been over the last 25 years.

Ever happy to please, I reflected on my time as a senior manager of charities as well as my current role providing training, coaching and consultation to a range of charities – and cheated by suggested two answers.

First, a move from paternalism to co-production.

Most charities are on a journey towards co-production and beyond, but economic pressures often force charities that are making good moves forward to slip back.

They are encouraged by funders to count activity and things done to beneficiaries rather than harder to count qualitative measures.  These are the kind of measures showing how the client is progressing in his/her way and time; with the charity taking a back seat in the process.

The second challenge is the economic situation charities find themselves in is still a fundamental issue. To put it crudely, charities are being asked more than ever to “do more with less”.

I worked for Oxfam for 14 years and was CEO at Focus Birmingham for 10, amongst other interesting senior management jobs. All through this career and at every stage of my career I was busy, mostly effective – yet often took work home with me.

However, through external factors such as less funding or restructure of levels of management, I found that we could (over time) produce more with less – if we set our collective minds to it.

Tackling mental health in the workplace to get ahead of the productivity drive

So perhaps one of the issues the PhD student should be looking at is how can leaders get ahead of the productivity drive?

If we are only forced into productivity gains by external factors, we are always catching up, suffering and stressing over the changes. If we can pick relatively calm periods when we are being successful and then deeply explore our own and our team’s productivity we could help both ourselves and our department to cope and thrive.

At a resilience workshop held by the Chamber of Commerce recently, we heard about the cost of absenteeism and in particular the days lost due to mental health issues.

Innovative but simple solutions are being tried out by a wide variety of organisations.  Birmingham Mind, under the leadership of Helen Wadley, have developed a Mental Health first aid course. This is a short course that equips staff to go back into their workforce and support people with mental health issues.

Maybe it’s time for leaders in the sector to also reflect on how well we create a safe space for staff to raise mental health issues.


Birmingham Mind have led the way in developing a Mental Health first aid course.

What can leaders do?

I want to link this idea with what has been described the four main drivers for motivation.  These are money, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Perhaps leaders should identify their main motivation driver (and recognise a bias towards that). Perhaps leaders could take time to work out what is the main driver for each of their staff (and it will often be different for each one of them) . Then, the leader could help adjust job roles, tweak projects and change their leadership style to enhance each individual’s motivational driver.

This could produce a healthier work environment with bespoke management styles.

And then the conditions are ripe for us to have meaningful conversations about productivity without resorting to the crisis of funding or the threat of  restructure and redundancy.

These PhD students make your think don’t they?

What the heck is strategy and why bother_(2)

Rob is a BVSC trainer, who is known for running engaging, stimulating and interactive courses on all things leadership and management for Birmingham’s third sector. You can view our courses here.

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