Seven Deadly Perils That New Charity Leaders Face (And How to Overcome Them)

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Being a Charity CEO is like leading a mountaineering expedition in a storm. You move ahead, with the elements raging against you, but at times it's all you can do just to hang on. New Charity Leaders encounter common hazards when starting a new role. Here are some ways to overcome them...


Everything depends on you. Funders expect maximum outputs in return for minimal resources. Trustees and staff rely on you to provide consistent, strong leadership through thick and thin.

But as CEO you are isolated. You have little managerial or collegial support; you have no-one to confide in. You lack opportunities to test out your ideas and avoid common pitfalls. Your trustees help where they can, but they can't provide objective performance management, feedback or guidance.

It's lonely at the top, especially for new charity bosses, but you can find support. Outside help from a trusted mentor, perhaps from a previous role, say a former colleague, can be a lifeline during this critical career transition. It will assist you to negotiate the turbulent charity terrain.

Blurred Vision

Many charities suffer from lack of clear vision. It's like trying to navigate without a map. You lose track of where you are heading. Planning suffers, resulting in confusion and overall ineffectiveness. With no definition of 'why' you do what you do, you get bogged down in 'how' you do it.

As CEO your task is to bring everyone together with a common purpose. Consult trustees, staff and beneficiaries, and clarify the vision ('why') and mission ('how') of the charity. Facilitate this process to engage those involved, and to encourage their investment in the overall direction. Now you can start to formulate a strategy and action plan to ensure the best outcomes for the people you serve.

Weak Infrastructure

Muddled vision, mission and strategy, all lead to ineffective planning and inadequate structures, policies and procedures, and poor outcomes for beneficiaries. You need a new strategy and clear action plan. You need a staff structure with appropriate roles and responsibilities, and clear lines of accountability.

Ensure your organisation is fit-for-purpose by reshaping policies, and sharpening operational practices. Naturally, these changes will be met with some resistance. It will take considerable courage and conviction on your part to see them through.

Poor Morale

People working in charities want to achieve the best outcomes for the vulnerable people they serve. But funding chaos and threats to jobs leave staff feeling demoralised. Team working also suffers.

As CEO you listen to and respond to people's hopes and concerns, gain their trust and get them on board with the charitable aims. An inclusive approach will foster enthusiasm and autonomy in your staff as they commit to their role in the charity's success.


Leading major change is not easy, and you now have a massive workload. There are financial issues, staff redundancies and related disputes. You are doing other people's jobs and focusing on operational, rather than strategic issues. You are working far too many hours and this is impinging on your personal life.

You need to take a step back and prioritise your workload. Consider delegating more to key individuals, and developing your staff's confidence to shoulder more responsibility. Now you can begin to protect your time, regain your work-life balance and focus on your own professional development.

Hair-Shirt Syndrome

Charities are driven by altruistic values. While honourable, being austere and self-sacrificing has obvious downsides. Organisations that cut corners in areas such as staff development can seem advantageous to funders, who want more and more outputs for their money. It seems a luxury to allocate precious funds to improving your human resource.

But continuous professional development is regarded in the corporate sector as essential for businesses to be responsive to ever-changing and challenging environments. Teams are allocated training budgets and CEOs are offered leadership support as a source of independent managerial expertise and professional feedback.

As a charity CEO, you've worked hard to get where you are. You're already good at what you do. But how often do you give yourself a little time to reflect on your own performance, to develop your skills, and to consider your future? Make this a priority.

Fear of Flying

You've reached the top! So now you raise your sights and scan the environment for new opportunities. You look to form new partnerships, engage new stakeholders and represent your organisation in the public arena. You want to make the leap to new heights, and broader horizons. But you are uncertain of what lies beyond your comfort zone. Your own fear is the deadliest peril of all.

You deserve a little affirmation of your strengths as a leader. You now have a track record of delivering life-changing outcomes for the vulnerable people you serve. You are dependable, courageous and you inspire everyone with your devotion to the cause. You might consider a new role, launching your own venture, or offering your expertise as a consultant. Who knows what the future holds? It's time to prepare for that leap of faith towards your next thrilling adventure!

Author: Ramona Metcalfe Published: 2017-02-02