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The superpowers of charities:

The seven superpowers that help charities punch above their weight by Joe Saxton

How do charities do the maximum amount of good with their limited resources? Is size really the only way of reaching more, doing more and achieving more? No of course it isn’t. Because if size is all that matters then charities and non-profits are in trouble, because even the biggest charities are dwarfed by the size of the biggest companies and the size of government. This blog looks at the things that charities can do to punch above their weight, to have more impact for any given size. I call them the superpowers of charities – they are the powers that make the ordinary, extraordinary.

Not all of these superpowers are the exclusive preserve of charities. But I start with those typically found exclusively in charities.

1. Volunteers

Of all the superpowers it is volunteers and volunteering that is perhaps the most commonly associated with charities. The fact that people will give their time for free to help a cause that they care about, or to help people they have never met, or to change their community is truly wonderful. The volunteering superpower is at its most visible when disaster strikes, whether it is in Ukraine, or through floods, or Covid. However, astonishing volunteering takes place day in and day out, across the land, and it makes our society a better place.

2. Campaigning

My second superpower is campaigning. Despite what some politicians say, campaigning is an absolute rational strategy to wanting to change the world. If a government, or a local authority, or a policy, or a law or a company isn’t doing things in the best possible way to make the world better, then campaigning is a rational response, indeed probably the only way to make it better. I believe that pretty much every charity can be doing some degree of campaigning (and I don’t mind if you want to call it influencing, or advocacy). Campaigning is a superpower that help charities do more with less.

3. Inspiration & ideas.

If there is one charity superpower that can be almost invisible its giving people ideas and inspiration. While companies rarely want to inspire people, unless they buy a product, charities are the opposite. They want to inspire people to help in their communities or during Covid, they want to give people the ideas to help those with dementia, or other disabilities, or who need to reduce their fuel bills. Getting people to take on the ideas that make the world a more tolerant place, for example, are at the heart of what makes a charity punch above its weight in terms of influence.

4. Brand and image

It might surprise some people that I think brand is a superpower. But it is: because the reputation or the image or the brand of an organisation that is trying to get a message across is critical to how it is received. It’s easy to think that a good idea should be worthy on its own merit. In practice though, who is saying things really matters – which is why the brand of an organisation is incredibly important. Any charity who thinks that what they say and do will be given attention, irrespective of their image, is losing out on one of their potential superpowers.

5. Strategy and focus

There is nothing unique to charities about my last three superpowers: the importance of strategy, culture and leadership. A great strategy makes companies, governments, or charities more effective. I am in the middle of a project reading and analysing over 100 charity strategies and its clear to me that some charities have awesome strategies and others are woefully inadequate. The reason that strategy is a superpower is that it helps organisation be more effective, use its resources, people and financial, to better effect. It doesn’t cost a huge amount of money to have a great strategy – but it sure can make a big difference to delivering a charity’s mission.

6. Culture and diversity

The culture of an organisation, the way people (staff and volunteers) are managed, treated, and work together is really important to how well an organisation delivers. Embedded within culture is diversity – organisations which are diverse by demographics, and ways of thinking, and behaviours, will be more resilient and more inclusive. A culture which supports and nurtures people, makes them more motivated, more inspired and work better as a team, is worth its weight in gold. A great organisational culture, founded on diversity (of people, thinking and approach), makes organisations do more with less.

7. Leadership

Any football fan will know the difference that a manager can make to a Team’s performance. Just this season in the premier league we have Erik Ten Hag at Manchester Utd showing demonstrably better results than last season, and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal doing the same over a slightly longer time span. The leadership of a charity, the CEO and the trustees, are no less important in terms of performance and delivery of a mission. They are just slightly less visible. It’s for these reasons that CEO salaries are tending to creep upwards, and the appointment of the top team at an organisation is so important. It’s fair to say that few charities will do a great job without either a great CEO and leadership team or a great board of trustees or both.

I would hate anybody to think that my list of charity superpowers is exhaustive. I’d be delighted to hear of other superpowers that people think that charities have, and I have missed. What I think is that every charity needs to look at this list, and ask itself how it is ensuring that it does more with less, and that its level of annual income isn’t the only determinant of impact and success



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