Craig Beeston: I was a judge at the Charity Times Awards – this is what I learned

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Charity Times Awards, the 20th anniversary of the celebration of the hard work, dedication, innovation and leadership in the charity sector.

While it wasn’t my first time at the ceremony itself, it was the first time I had been asked to judge the categories. Sitting down and reading the submissions from charities up and down the country – from regional societies to overseas aid organisations and some of the most well-known household names – provides a great opportunity to reflect on the breadth of work the charitable sector in the UK carries out. Even the relatively small sample of the sector, which the shortlist gives, demonstrates the number of areas of life touched by the work of these organisations.

Of course, sitting amid black ties and evening dresses in a large function room at a central London hotel seemed a million miles from the everyday work of those in attendance. And no doubt there are some who would see it as incongruent with the selflessness of the charitable ethos and the frugality with which – they might contend – the sector should be run.

But I think we can be certain of one thing: no-one in that room joined the charity sector, as a volunteer, a trustee, an employee or in any other capacity, for nights like this. Their drive and motivation comes from elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve such nights, or the recognition for years – sometimes decades – in the service of others.

But as well as serving an important purpose in rewarding the people and organisations who usually go unseen, in maintaining the morale of an often embattled sector, the awards draw attention to work done well – in many cases, extremely well. A glance down the list of categories gives a clue as to the range of skills employed in making the sector run.

Last year’s Trust in Charities report, based on research carried out on behalf of the Charity Commission, showed that two factors were neck-and-neck (albeit not the most significant) in determining public confidence in a charity. Scoring 8.3 out of 10 among respondents were that a charity is well-governed and well-managed, and that it can demonstrate a positive difference. Both were prominent themes in the submissions of shortlisted charities. Both are to be welcomed.

It was striking among the contenders how strong they were at setting out a clear and ambitious strategy to achieve their goals and underpinning this with targets that linked activities to the overall vision.

Strategies which built in a robust financial framework, aimed at long-term sustainability, which acknowledged explicitly a range of risks and which laid out the steps for their mitigation indicated that the charities are taking a prudent and well thought out approach to their work.

There were interesting and exciting examples of partnerships, both within the sector and with organisations outside of it, locally and nationally, demonstrating a collaborative approach and creative solutions to often quite traditional issues.

The serious efforts, which charities seem to be making to measure their impact, qualitatively, quantitatively and longitudinally, came through strongly in the submissions. Donors and funders, as well as the charities themselves, want to know that activities are having the desired outcomes, that resources and investments are expended effectively, and that the charitable purposes are pursued with optimal success.

In some cases, sophisticated methodologies are not required; it is enough to take relatively simple steps to assess the impact that is being achieved. For other charities, however, a more detailed analysis is more appropriate, with a concerted attempt to capture data, quantify impact and feed the reporting back into operational and strategic thinking.

One other pleasing thread that trickled through the shortlisted submissions was the preparedness of some charities to exhibit a little bit of boldness. Risk aversion is not an uncommon trait in the sector, perhaps with good reason as charities seek to play it relatively safe with their assets, mindful of the cost – to beneficiaries and to their own reputation – of ventures which don’t pay off.

Yet, as the Charity Governance Code (shortly to undergo a period of consultation – watch this space) makes clear, being over-cautious and risk averse can be a risk in itself and can stifle innovation. The flip side of risk is, of course, opportunity. It is encouraging, then, to see charities setting themselves ambitious targets for growth and change, trying new things, aiming at increasing their influence in the sector and beyond, and strengthening their advocacy. One memorable submission saw the charity described as the mavericks of their sector, prepared to disrupt the status quo. Where this is appropriate, it is to be commended.

So what does an evening like the Charity Times Awards tell us? Well, it tells us, of course, that thousands upon thousands of people in the UK are dedicated to their causes. But it also demonstrates that the sector is in good hands, with talented and innovative people showing real leadership, business acumen and professionalism alongside the commitment and personal investment that is almost taken for granted.

Through raising the profile of these people and the charities they represent, the awards show the public, as well as donors and funders, the truly impressive work that is being done to further the charitable purposes, to reach beneficiaries and to maximise impact.

When high-profile exposure is often of the negative kind, this can provide a bit of balance and should instil confidence in the sector. But if nothing else, a bit of recognition for those who rarely seek it is a great thing.

Craig Beeston is a policy officer (not for profit) at The Chartered Governance Institute (ICSA)

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