18 August, 2015
Camila Batmanghelidjh’s primacy in Kids Company’s work and its relationships with funders has seized much of the spotlight around the charity’s tragic demise. Her organisation was, as one commentator put it, ‘synonymous with her image’.
Having a founder at the helm for a long time can be problematic in many ways, most of them far from the extremes reached by Kids Company, but there are nonetheless lessons to be learnt from this high-profile example.
Founders or long-standing chief executives naturally have a strong sense of ownership over a charity’s vision, direction, and the means of achieving it. They are often intimidating forces – that’s why they’ve been in post for so long of course – and the organisation will naturally be grateful to them for getting it to where it is today. They will most likely hold a lot of the strings, and a lot of the relationships that are intrinsic to operations, be they with funders, partners, or influencers (including journalists and politicians). All this can and does deliver huge benefits for a charity, but a tipping point can be reached when those benefits are counter-balanced by the limitations they place on things, and the risks they pose for the future. Even if your founder or chief executive is doing an amazing job, and you just want it to carry on forever, it won’t, and there’ll come a day when you need to be able to rely on other faces for your organisation.
Clearly responsibility for addressing these issues sits primarily with trustees and senior management, but responsibility for managing the face of your organisation sits with communications. If your leader is in danger of swamping your charity’s brand, if your organisation’s name has become inseparable from the individual, communications has a fundamental role to play in mitigating the associated risks and creating a better balance.
There are lots of things you can do to add more faces to the charity, starting with identifying those from across the organisation who might be well-placed to hold strong associations with the brand. Commonly, these will include members of the senior management team or department heads who have strong specialist expertise or interesting personal connections, trustees with particularly strong profiles, senior staff, and even service users and volunteers to some degree.
Here are a few of the things that work particularly well, all of which offer broad value for your organisation while also helping you address the implications of your leadership issue.
All this has value not just in the extremes of dominant leadership, of course, but also as good practice for succession planning. Wherever you are along that path, don’t leave it too late, and don’t underestimate your job within it all as a communications professional.