Ray Lock CBE writes, Ray has been Chief Executive of Forces in Mind Trust since 2012.
Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would have been a great idea had the ship not just struck an iceberg. I’ve heard that hackneyed analogy used to describe investing in leadership development at a time when many charities are at serious risk of sinking under the weight of increased demand and decreased income. It’s amusing but entirely inaccurate.
Our top priority at Forces in Mind Trust has always been to bring about systemic improvements in the way in which ex-serving personnel and their families are supported, mainly through policy change. But sitting alongside it has been, and remains, improving the effectiveness of the Armed Forces charities sector.
This can take many forms. We support Clore Social Leadership because our simple hypothesis is that better leadership brings increased effectiveness. One of my proudest moments was when a recently-graduated Clore fellow spoke to my Board about his initial scepticism being replaced by a determination to make his employer, a major Armed Forces charity, introduce its own leadership development. Thanks to his energy, he has just succeeded.
It’s tempting when faced with inadequate resources to trim anything that doesn’t directly contribute to an organization’s output. The charity sector seems particularly prone to this, even in ‘normal’ times when a relentless and often regulator-driven focus on minimizing overheads goes beyond lean and into skeletal. In a sector that has people at the heart of its purpose, how strange to find it is prepared to invest so little in its own staff.
Better leadership won’t, of course, solve everything. We’ve just commissioned a piece of futures work that will look out at least a decade. ‘Future Trends’ is our gift to the Armed Forces community; and even though some within that community might prefer the money to be spent on urgently needed services or welfare, I know that the impact of this almost conceptual project will prove of far greater benefit over time.
Then there is the Gordian Knot that binds the importance of collaboration with the organizational ego that places survival over effect. If we could find a way to slice through that one, it would be money well spent. The solution lies in a combination of training together (see Clore above), working together with both front line and back office, and perhaps the missing link – getting Trustees together.
I’m in the privileged position of sitting on the Executive committee of our umbrella organization – Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities, whose collaborative £2million replacement IT project will allow the major caseworker providers to exchange beneficiaries’ information and bring funders together to maximize their impact. I know my fellow chief executives well, but I couldn’t name a single one of their chairs. Nor I suspect do the chairs know each other well enough, let alone the board members of others. Time is the biggest limiting resource and if we accounted for it as scrupulously as we do for our money, then perhaps we would get much more from it. Volunteers and that includes Trustees, give mainly of their time. We should treat this gift as parsimoniously as if it had been donated from a child’s pocket money, and invest it as wisely as we do our endowments.
Amongst the many concerns I have about the future of Armed Forces charities, my primary one is not that the weaker fail. Quite the opposite – it is that the weaker survive, but on life support that distracts and diverts resources and attention from where charities can be most effective. This isn’t an argument for centralised monoliths, but for an honest, inclusive debate.
We need to invest where it makes sense to do so. I would argue strongly for that being leadership development, credible research and improved collaboration. These are the tools that we will use to solve our problems and enact our solutions. We need to have a pragmatic discussion about what the State is likely to provide in the next decade, and how charities can best apply their efforts to helping those most in need. A discussion that embraces all views, but which results in a shared and determined way ahead, that everyone can lead, and everyone can follow.