Our saving grace

To be effective, you have to say no to some things, give yourself permission to not do everything, and to not do everything you do well, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 26 September 2019.

Our saving grace, Pro Bono News, 26 September 2019

Blow the candles out, raise a glass to the night
Let all the tension out, you’ve been wound up so tight
It’s a tender trap to plan ahead all the time
If you measure the world by what you leave behind

Welcome to the saving grace 
There’s a sunset on the road, reappearing as we go

Keep the glass topped up, it’s not over just yet
Lock the social bluff, celebrate your success
Turn the sunlight out, find a place in the shade
If you measure the world by the mark that you’ve made

Welcome to the saving grace,
There’s a sunset on the road, reappearing as we go


– Powderfinger song “The Metre” from the album Odyssey Number Five, 


Charities are bombarded with expectations to do more: Are you reaching all the people you should? Are you collaborating and partnering with like-minded organisations? Are you marketing your success using different channels to digitally engage with your customers and supporters? Is staff training and succession planning in place across your organisation? Do you have a clearly defined, strategic social media strategy? Is fund-raising being incorporated appropriately into different levels of your organisation? Is there a clear risk management strategy that is reviewed and reported to your board? Do you have an ethical procurement strategy? Are all your compliances up to date? Does your forward planning factor in more effective collaborations? Are you reducing your footprint on the environment? How do you know you do good work? 

Whenever I read about how our organisation could or should be doing more, I feel a small pang of anxiety, even guilt. Perhaps I should focus more on that area of our operations, put more effort in that activity and less on other things? Maybe I am letting the organisation down? 

As the CEO of a small charity, I have 101 things I could or should be doing. I can only really do about 50 of them and, even then, I only do half of these well. Thankfully I have an outstanding board who are all CEOs of charities. They understand and regularly discuss the reality that none of us can effectively cover every possible aspect of managing our programs and organisations at the level we might desire.

When CCA was looking at developing forward planning for the sector we identified eight core focus areas that need to be addressed if we are to establish a strong vision about where the sector might want to be in 10 years: 

  1. Measurement, outcomes, and quality of services (our value)
  2. Governance, organisational structures and legal environment (our organisations)
  3. Leadership and staff development (our people)
  4. Policy and advocacy (our influence)
  5. Philanthropy and volunteers (our supporters)
  6. Government funding, contracting and tendering (our funding relationships)
  7. IT, communication and marketing (our capacity)
  8. Impact investing and leveraging our assets (our capital)

This is a big list of issues. It would be challenging for any one organisation to attend to all these areas well, let alone expecting one person to be accountable for all eight areas across a whole organisation. 

There is another level of activity below this list, the kind of day-to-day troubleshooting and oversight necessary just to keep things running, to stay across the opportunities and threats, to maintain programs and services, to ensure every day the organisation is focused on pursuing its charitable purpose. 

Often when I talk to charity leaders, they will say things are going well, that they are quite proud of how their organisation is performing and how they are making a difference. They tell stories of their success. Yet, at a personal level these same successful leaders will tell me they feel under constant pressure to do more, to better manage their challenges and deliver the kind of outcomes their organisation should be achieving in an ideal world. 

In many cases, the expectations leaders feel for their organisations are completely at odds with the time, resources, salaries and organisational capacity the leaders have to work with. 

Early on in my career I learned that to be effective, you have to say no to some things, give yourself permission to not do everything, and to not do everything you do well. Perhaps more importantly, I learned to accept that failure is an important part of success, and that success is rarely immediate. 

At CCA we know we will not always achieve our goals. Sometimes we fail. All of us feel we should be doing more to promote the value of the sector and to influence national policy. At every board meeting, we discuss our priorities, what we can and cannot afford to address given our resources. CCA has achieved a lot, but we know we could do so much more if we had more resources, if more of our sector would get behind us and support us. 

More broadly across the charity sector we are only too aware that we are not achieving as much as we would like to. There is so much work to do, huge unmet need, too many disconnected people in communities where trust is falling as incarceration rates and suicides increase. 

Almost every charity leader I know works in excess of what might reasonably be expected of someone employed on a comparable salary within a corporation or government. Almost every charity leader I know is motivated not by personal reward, but by being able to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve. 

Tim Costello’s recently released memoir is titled “A lot with a little”. In many ways this sums up working in the charities sector where doing more with less is the norm, where organisations achieve remarkable outcomes with limited resources.

Sometimes in the struggle to improve, to make more of a difference, we can put huge pressure on ourselves, create unrealistic expectations, anxieties and pressures. Striving to do better is good, but it needs to be tempered by acknowledging that within our limitations, Australian charities do amazing transformative work. 

The gap between the ideal and the reality is rightly the focus of our efforts, but it should never define us, because even if we only partially succeed, our work will leave the world a better place. For me, this is the saving grace within our constant struggle to leave a bigger mark on the world. 

Read on Pro Bono News: our-saving-grace