Charity Workshop – Culture; the Making or Breaking of the charity sector

5th Dec 2018

Charities have traditionally been the leaders in meaningful work, but without unique, strong working cultures, coupled with the rise of purposeful brands, they’re haemorrhaging talent to the private sector. To follow up our research paper Culture: the Making or Breaking of the Charity sector earlier this year, we decided to open the discussion at a breakfast workshop on the same topic.


On a cold and wet morning in November, we brought together some of the brightest minds in the sector at Comic Relief offices to debate the importance of a strong organisational culture in the charity sector. They included representatives from Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Crisis, Comic Relief, Versus Arthritis, Barnardos and others.


All attendees found the content of the workshop useful for the organisation they work in. It was a morning of practical advice and peer-to-peer ideas sharing, with 90% saying they’re going to go back and make changes to the culture of their organisation.



Why were we getting together?

Our research had told us…

  • 37% have been put off working for a charity because of recent scandals
  • 45% have heard negative reviews about working for charities
  • More people think they can make an impact through working for a business over a charity
  • A fifth have left a charity because they weren’t making enough impact
  • Over 55% of the top 100 charities have values – but over 63% of those are the same as another charity


“A charity that claims to stand for one thing, but whose behaviour does not support that claim, will tarnish the view of all who come into contact with it, and contaminate the wider sector too”

ICSA Report 2017


Key takeouts


For anyone who missed the event here are the top 5 areas we discussed:


  • Charities are in competition with the private sector more than ever before to attract and retain top talent. To do this they must have a clear purpose, values and culture that they are living and breathing from top to bottom.
  • “Get the first stage right – defining your purpose and values – and changing your culture should be much easier” – Lots of ideas were shared around how to change culture and some of the markers of great culture people had experienced.  Many championed involving people across the organisation in any work around purpose, values or culture change. This is also key when considering who ‘leads’ culture – all agreed that it should be led from the top and the bottom. Joseph Rowntree Trust highlighted the importance of role-modelling by leaders across the organisation. They had also had great success with an ambassador group that are still implementing change and new ideas to keep their culture alive 12 months after their official purpose launched.  All agreed that the hallmarks of a great culture ranged from a common language that’s spoken and understood, to everyone being united around a common purpose (and knowing why they ‘get out of bed’) and a passion and enjoyment that comes across in everything that’s delivered.
  • Silo working and decision making are key common challenges in charity sector cultures – We looked at how Purpose and Values can help to solve some of the big issues facing charities today. Amongst our guests, people recognised ‘silo working’ as being an issue, also the ‘difficulty making decisions’, and ‘trying to do too much’. Comic Relief, Crisis and Versus Arthritis had all experienced challenges in these areas and were great at sharing examples and suggestions to make this easier.
  • Fortunately strong values and a clearly articulated purpose can help to solve these issues – Having a clearly defined purpose in place will assist people across the business to make difficult decisions that may be affecting their ability to do their day to day job. It is a sensor-check in any situation to stop and say ‘ is this the right direction for us’?  Purpose helps tackle a lack of efficiency, again linked to decision making. It is often challenging to decide how to prioritise – what should you go for and what should you leave to one side (for now)? Also, debates around what route will derive the most impact. Purpose gives clarity of direction in all of these discussions.


Values are also not only the characteristics of how you work, they also help with tough decision making and a lack of efficiency, giving employees a barometer to help weigh up options against. They guide the way things should be done and the behaviours that are expected in an organisation, providing a unique cultural framework.


  • But they need to be distinct, wishy-washy values is a key issue preventing the sector from attracting talent –  Our research of the Top 100 charities found that only 55% had values and of those over 60% had values that were the same as another charity. We reviewed some of these values and all agreed how difficult it was to identify with a charity’s ‘cause’ if they’re too generic or too similar to other organisations values.  We discussed the need for charities to have a unique and descriptive set of values to ensure the purpose and direction of the organisation is clearly understood.


Overall, having a purpose and values that are fully embedded in a charity will help avoid many of these pitfalls. It helps people to understand the aims of the charity and buy into the vision. It will help with retention, engagement and keep employees motivated to find solutions. Crucially, this means employees will once again trust and admire charities and realise they can make a difference in this sector.

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