Gathering together at a new venue, the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms, delegates from across the sector heard from a range of speakers on issues affecting the steady leadership of charities.
It quickly became clear that for the charity sector, there is no rest. Brexit looms, reputations are at risk and cyber is an ongoing threat, but charities are still working hard to keep up.
During the morning, speakers paid particular attention to one of the key issues causing uncertainty for the future of charities; Brexit. The Royal Society’s Julie Maxton addressed some of the issues exiting the European Union is likely to have on the third sector, noting how it’s important charities continue to push for investment in science, research and innovation – all of which will be implicated if the UK leaves the EU.
“UK researchers are from around the world,” Maxton said. “Research and innovation is increasingly global and the UK’s excellence attracts people from around the world, competing with other scientifically excellence nations. Changes to the UK’s migration policy may impact on the mobility of researchers from oversea.”
On the investment side of the debate, Nandu Patel and Andrew Blair from Rothschild said in light of Brexit, charities need to be prepared to take a long-term view with their investments – well beyond 2019. The duo warned the audience that trustees must be sure to lower their sights and stay away from the assumption that returns have fallen due to Brexit. “Trustees should avoid letting emotions drive their decisions,” they said. “Brexit and geopolitical risk are always manageable.”
Sustainable and ethical investment was also a hot topic at this year’s conference. Paul Nicoll from Triodos Bank kicked off the debate around ESG by highlighting some of the ways in which banking through sustainable and socially-beneficial projects can help a charity to advance its overall mission.
“Our mission is to make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change,” he said. Nicoll continued to share examples of some of the organisations and causes a charity’s reserves could fund, such as renewable energy, recording studios and schools – all of which can create direct social impact.
However, while investing and banking with an ethical purpose might seem attractive to charities, many trustees are concerned about the cost of doing so. Addressing delegates in the afternoon, David Palmer from Epworth, explained how trustees can “have their cake and eat it” when it comes to investing in this way.
Palmer argued that it is important to approach ethical investment by conducting detailed proprietary research to identify the best companies to invest in, looking for those with sustainable growth prospects, a strong financial position and a reasonable valuation.
Additionally, he explained it is also important to keep an eye on how other companies are reacting to the likes of climate change – staying clear of those who are failing to do what they say they will.
Of course investing in projects and funds that promote social and environmental good can do wonders for a charity’s overall reputation – something many charities are battling for following the recent Oxfam scandal.
However, closing the conference, former-CEO of Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh spoke about the collapse of Kids Company, noting how from her experience, reputations aren’t quite so easy to control. She explained to delegates how quickly Kids Company fell into administration by “being targeted” and “struggling to survive amidst a climate of such accusations”.
“It’s frightening that a charity could be damaged on the back of absolute distortions,” she said. “You learn as you go along and make mistakes as you go along, but that’s what happens with running any company.”
Reputational damage can hit charities from a number of different directions. Elliot Rose from PA Consulting explained how failing to make GDPR more than just a ‘tick in the box’ exercise can also bruise a charity’s image, whilst putting beneficiaries in danger.
“For charities, the damage of a personal data breach is not just the legal penalties or the reputational damage, but also in terms of the impact on a particular person’s life. A breach of personal data can put somebody who is already vulnerable at risk of harm, financial loss or even blackmail,” Rose said.
But the overarching theme of the day was technology. From fundraising to management, the use of technology is absolutely crucial to the way a charity is perceived by the public and, as speakers stressed throughout the day, can be the most useful tool in meeting a charity’s overall goal.
Matthew Hodson from aids charity NAM and winner of the Social Media CEO of the Year award, talked about the importance of social media. He advised delegates to follow some simple steps: “Be topical, follow up where helpful, add something to the story, stand
up for what you believe in, make it personal and finally, raise the tone, but do not raise the volume.”
Speakers Ed Gairdner and Marina Stedman from the Good Exchange also plugged social media among other new methods of technology that can prove to be a great investment for a charity’s future.
Stedman highlighted how tools such as Google Adwords are free for charities, as part of the Google for NonProfits programme. She said Google Ad Grants can be used to reach people who are making non-profit/charity-related searches and qualifying non-profits receive $10,000 a month in AdWord advertising.
She also drew reference to tools such as Hootsuite, that can provide the opportunity to manage more than one Twitter account simultaneously, freeing up time and effort for anybody in charge of managing a charity’s social media accounts.
In her keynote speech at the beginning of the day, Baroness Liz Barker said given the need for technological knowledge and experience among charities, it is vital that every charity has a digital trustee on its board, in the same way it has a treasurer.
The Lords spokesperson for the voluntary sector said: “Just as a good board has a treasurer, it should also have a good digital trustee, who’s responsible for insuring everybody in the board understands what is happening.”
“Charities have a deficit when it comes, in particular, to the skills of digital governance. You might know what you’re doing digitally, but I don’t necessarily think your boards do,” Barker added. “The future is going to be digital and [as a result] charities need a ‘digital trustee’.”
ICSA’s Louise Thomson gave some excellent insights into what is needed to become a successful trustee, explaining the need for greater diversity of experience among trustee boards, which will in turn lead to better decision making.
But Thomson also explained that being a successful trustee also comes from knowing when it is the right time to step down from the role. “Every trustee joins a board wanting to make a positive difference, but sometimes life gets in the way. You will gain more respect from knowing when to step away rather than outstaying your welcome,” Thomson told delegates.
The Charity Times Annual Conference will return next May, and more details are to follow. ■