by | Mar 5, 2023

Tackling the challenges of leading a campaigning charity head on

At SMK, we know from listening to CEOs and other leaders (in both large and smaller charities) that there are particular challenges in leading a campaigning charity (whether focused entirely on campaigning or balancing this with service delivery).

Measures for success and motivational elements for leaders and teams differ. There may be real fears about the risks of campaigning by Boards, funders, teams, and others. Partnerships in campaigning can be complex in terms of finding the space for ‘your’ organisation’s messages and drive for change that complements others, without ‘stepping on toes’. Fundraising can be particularly challenging, especially because public giving to campaigns can be more complex than for services, so relationships with independent funders and philanthropists become even more important.

CEOs have told us about five common tensions and dilemmas that you face in leading a campaigning charity:

Power sharing: How we ensure legitimacy and power-sharing across teams so that people with lived experience are at the centre of everything with shared ownership of campaign messages, ‘wins’ and future plans.

Holding confidence: Overcoming fear and scepticism among staff, Board members, supporters and others about the risks of campaigning – that it might detract from services and waste precious resource; that the charity may become enmeshed in allegations of being ’too political’ as a result and be drawn into so-called ‘culture wars’ (especially if an organisation has existed mainly under the radar); that individual leaders or Board members might end up under a negative spotlight.

Choosing battles: Working out what systems change is realistically possible given multiple pressures, and how we make sure that the battles we choose help us to challenge a system, while working inside it and not falling into the trap of unintentionally shoring it up.

Achieving balance: The tension between leading an organisation internally and being outward facing; Providing services in a system and campaigning to change that system; Collaboration with partners and the competition that can be involved in securing space for ‘your’ campaign; Conflicts between securing funding and criticising the systems by which that resource is allocated and sometimes the working practices and cultures of those providing funding.

Instilling hope: How to criticise multiple systems failings and draw attention to these whilst instilling hope that change is possible; Retaining personal and team motivation for yourself and your team, Board, partners, funders and the people your charity exists for – and doing it all over the long haul.

CEOs, you have said that you would really welcome opportunities to explore with other leaders facing similar challenges, practice ‘radical listening’ and create space for building deeper trust and partnerships.  SMK have seen for ourselves the difference such spaces for reflection and problem-solving can make to individuals, organisations, partnerships and whole campaigns. That’s why SMK are introducing a new Action Learning Set (ALS) offer targeting chief executives and directors of campaigning charities.

Introducing SMK’s new action learning set for CEOs of campaigning charities

An action learning set (ALS) is structured around a group of up to 8 peers who meet regularly over a fixed period (in this case we propose 6 bi-monthly sessions over a year) to discover practical ways of addressing ‘real life’ challenges they face and support their own learning and development.

With the support of a facilitator, set members find their own solutions to challenges through a structured process of questioning, support and challenge from within their group. A key element of the sessions are commitments to action across the group, which everyone holds each other accountable for in the subsequent meeting. As trust builds the group learns together, avoiding advice and opinion to focus instead on open questions and observations. Where Action Learning Sets work well, the group will often ’stay together’ meeting regularly long after the initial set period is over and self-facilitating.

This ALS is a rare opportunity for campaigning CEOs to come together, share challenges and solutions and refine your own leadership skills through the trust built within the group. The programme will run from April 2023 until March 2024 and will include at least two face-to-face sessions hosted at a central London venue in April 2023 and March 2024.

If you are interested in being considered for taking part in this set, please contact Kath Christie, Head of Programmes at SMK.  Full details of the offer can be found here

Please also let us know if the timings for the current set are not suitable, but you would be interested in joining a future ALS. Our intention is that this will be one of a network of ALSs for campaigning CEOs. 

Kate Paradine

Dr Kate Paradine is facilitator for the action learning sets for CEOs and senior leaders of campaigning organisations. She is an SMK Associate and the former CEO of Women in Prison.



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