Eight ways in which social sector organisations can improve

Dame Mary Marsh outlines the findings of a government review into skills and leadership among charities and social enterprises

Social sector organisations are aware of the need for continued development and taking on new ways of doing things to ensure we continue to deliver the high standards our beneficiaries deserve.

Over the past six months I’ve been leading a government review into social sector skills and how charities and social enterprises can attract, train and retain the high level of talent needed for the sector to perform at the highest possible level. We’ve engaged with the sector and other stakeholders through an online discussion forum open to all and consultation events.

We have shared online the findings from our short review into the sector’s most vital needs – but, to summarise, here are eight critical areas where we think the social sector can try to improve:

Strengthen governance

Boards can lack the skills they need for the radically different challenges they face today. Lack of diversity remains a serious issue, sometimes limiting breadth of thinking and debate, and can create a real gulf between us and the beneficiaries we seek to serve.

This is not a new issue, but boards need to invest time in reviewing themselves against the sector’s Code of Good Governance.

Attract and develop leaders

The quality of leadership is at the heart of success in the social sector. This includes aspiring and emerging leaders across all levels and positions, not just those at the “top” of organisations. Leadership is something that is learnt by doing it and by reflecting on the outcomes.

Funders should support the development of leadership capacity when considering investments, and simply widening access to mentoring and coaching skills could make a huge difference.

Routes into and through the social sector

There is a challenge for the social sector actively to attract and recruit more young people. Trainees leaving full-time education, apprentices and graduates should all have clear, supported pathways to join us. While there are good examples of best practice in some areas, generally getting a foot in the door is very hard.

We should appoint more people for their potential and provide clearer routes forward for them.

Skills sharing

There is huge benefit in relationships whereby time, expertise and resources are shared by people and organisations in the social sector as well as with those in the public and private sectors. We would all benefit from much more of this at all levels, not just among senior leaders and managers.

A key part of success is effective brokerage that helps make the connections, often at a local level. We should invest in this to both support and replicate it more widely.

Digital fluency

Increased digital fluency is an absolute necessity for the social sector if we are to engage effectively with our beneficiaries, supporters and other stakeholders

We must be ready to disrupt our ways of working to take advantage of the benefits of new technology, including social media, and not remain detached. We must be open to mentoring and skills sharing with digital natives, and this applies in particular to those in senior leadership positions.

Data-informed social change

The ability to gather, manipulate, learn from and share data will inform and drive the most effective social organisations of the future as is also the case elsewhere in the public and private sectors.

We need rigorous evidence to demonstrate our impact and inform our delivery. We must invest in data skills, be robust about the integrity of all our data and learn the value of being open with it.

Enterprise capability

The finance available to social sector organisations is changing significantly. There is a proliferation of new sources of revenue, strategic grants and capital for which we need to have the skills to identify with confidence what is relevant, make compelling cases for funding and manage such finances responsibly.

Funders could support the development of this capability as part of an investment relationship.

Collaboration in the social sector

Good collaboration rarely leads to merger. It can allow flexible working in horizontal structures and the complementing of respective strengths to yield greater value. It is highly dependent on attitudes, evidence and facilitation/negotiation skills which should form part of all leadership development.

Dame Mary Marsh led a government review into skills and leadership in the social sector, the details of which can be found at www.leadingsocial.org.uk. She is also founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme.

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