Charities and organisational change

Justin Forsyth, outgoing Chief Executive of Save the Children, argues that charities must embrace organisational change if they are to keep the trust — and the generosity — of the public

By Justin Forsyth

Follow Justin on Twitter @justinforsyth

Over my working life I have worked as both a campaigner targeting the government from the outside and inside government, where I have been on the receiving end of campaigns. For the past five years I have been back on the outside as chief executive of Save the Children. I am often asked what I have learnt as I’ve switched ‘sides’. The answer is simple: there are no sides. Or, more precisely, the two sides are not inside and outside, but people in both camps who are either restless for change or people who find comfort in the status quo. And I am clear — effective charity leaders must be unambiguously, relentlessly, ferociously of the former. Given the scale of our ambitions for social justice, the nature of shifting power dynamics driven by everything from the digital revolution to the rise of the emerging economies, and the degree of scrutiny that all institutions — from banking and politics to the media and charities — now come under, we simply do not have the luxury of standing still.

As I leave Save the Children, I am more convinced than ever that it is in the resilience and ingenuity of children and their families surviving and even thriving against the odds that we will help find the solutions to the big global challenges of poverty, extremism, inequality and climate change. But I am also less convinced that the traditional international charity model is up to the task of remaking the 21st century unless we undertake some radical — and controversial — changes.

In the past few years, the charity has undergone a huge transformation, doubling our income to nearly £400m and recruiting nearly a million supporters. That groundswell of generosity and activism has enabled us to more than double the number of children we reach from 8 million to 17.4 million in recent years. Going from a much-loved national charity to a global cause has not been easy and there is as much to learn from our mistakes as from our successes. If I could sum up what I have learnt in one line it would be this: if charities are not prepared to change, we will, in turn, be less able to change the world.

“If charities are not prepared to change, we will, in turn, be less able to change the world”

Save the Children has set itself the goal of ending needless child deaths in this generation. That means no parent would have their heart shattered as they buried a child who had died from a disease we know how to treat, or because they did not have enough food in a world of plenty. Success would mark an incredible moment in the history of humanity and I passionately believe that this is possible in our lifetimes. But charities like ours should not even consider taking on such ambitious goals if they are not prepared to embrace some fundamental changes to the way they work. Here are five lessons drawn from how our organisation has changed — imperfectly — over the past five years, which present a much broader and deeper challenge.

The first lesson is that it is more important to build a shared platform than to build one organisation; one that Save the Children’s founder — Eglantyne Jebb — tried to teach us a century ago when she said:

“I believe we should claim certain rights for the children and labour for their universal recognition, so that everybody — not merely the small number of people who are in a position to contribute to relief funds, but everybody who in any way comes into contact with children, that is to say the vast majority of mankind — may be in a position to help.”

From the very beginning, we have been about providing a platform that enables everybody to do their bit to change children’s lives. Yet, nearly 100 years on, we are still trying to find new ways to be an organisation that does partnership by default.

One example is the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA), a new venture designed to train the next generation of humanitarian leaders to respond to crises in their own countries. The people best placed to respond swiftly and sustainably to many emergencies are not always aid experts scrambling to deploy from London or Washington, but people who are already there who have been equipped with training and resources. Having fundraised for the HLA and provided all the back-office functions to get it off the ground, we have now released it as a global public good. Why? Because building a platform that enables many organisations to come together and people to self-organise to do their bit has much greater impact than us trying to control and choreograph everything from one place to one masterplan.

The second lesson is that it is more powerful to recruit unexpected allies than to galvanise the usual suspects. I took a lot of heat for forming a partnership with GSK — a company I used to campaign against when it opposed cheap Aids drugs — but under new leadership it has prioritised creating change for children, including reformulating an antiseptic found in mouthwash into a gel that prevents serious infection of the umbilical cord, a common cause of death for newborn babies in poor countries. We call that approach ‘core business’; seeking to influence the day-to-day activities of our corporate partners and harness their business power for good. Some nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are willing to work with the private sector, but only at arms’s length, with corporations stumping up cash and both sides moving on. Suspicion of the private sector has traditionally been associated with NGOs that are self-styled ‘radical’, but I cannot think of anything more conservative than accepting money without trying to change the behaviour of those who give it. Those who have opposed these kinds of partnerships have sometimes accused us of straying too far from our roots, but our very first donation, in 1919, came from the lawyer who prosecuted Eglantyne Jebb for distributing distressing flyers of starving children in Trafalgar Square. She was so impressive during her trial that he decided to pay her fine. This was the start of Save the Children’s longheld desire to expand the choir rather than just preach to it. The third lesson is that it is as important to build an exceptional team as an exceptional idea. Looking back on my time as chief executive, I don’t think I did enough to bring my whole team with me on driving the change we desired. My focus on achieving ambitious outcomes for children and my fear about the challenges we faced made me focus more externally than internally. I have learnt that if you do not focus on building a team and establishing a culture that empowers people then you can put that change at risk. At times I have focused too much on pursuing ideas around a set of ambitious outcomes, and not enough on bringing all staff on board with the vision and creating the right kind of culture for everybody to play a part in delivering it. I have not done enough to embed my way of thinking into the organisation or been open enough to having the organisation embed its way of thinking into me. This is an important leadership lesson for me that I hope I can take into future roles.

The fourth lesson is that mass and mainstream is what gives permission for edgy and sharp. Before this role I spent six years working in the prime minister’s office as an adviser. In that role I was on the receiving end of precisely the sort of campaigns I used to orchestrate in my previous life at Oxfam, and now lead. The lesson I have drawn is that organisations that are mindlessly critical have limited influence, just like those organisations that dole out praise to power when it is not deserved. The real power comes from being scrupulously fair, so that your verdict on a policy really means something. But what differentiates a campaigning organisation from a columnist, think tank or academic is that when we offer a verdict, we can mobilise thousands of people behind it, and it is based on our experience on the ground, often in the toughest places.

Our drive to ‘Restart the Rescue’, for example, persuaded all the major UK parties to pledge support for restarting refugee search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean this spring. We got those commitments during a general election campaign in which immigration was a hugely controversial topic and where plenty of people advised us that this campaign would not go down well with ‘Middle Britain’. In fact our supporters responded in huge numbers and also responded to the child refugee fundraising appeal we launched. One of the reasons that people who would never describe themselves as ‘activists’ will come on a journey with us to more controversial areas is because we have worked so hard to be a mainstream cause. We are always more interested in reaching families on their sofa or at school than having the approval of a radical fringe. The final and, in many ways, the most important lesson is that who you are should determine what you do, not the other way around. When I first arrived, I was worried that the charity had become an international development organisation, not a children’s rights organisation. We had drifted a bit from our core mission: saving children’s lives and helping children fulfil their potential. Being clear on our core mission and then building from that has allowed us to take more risks and be more ambitious. We returned to one clear question: ‘who are we?’. The answer is simple: we are Save the Children, so we have to do whatever it takes to save children.

That sort of simplicity has emboldened us to take risks. For example, we have pioneered what we call ‘signature programmes’ — very ambitious programmes to end child deaths, protect children in tough places and ensure they can learn — focusing on the most marginalised and deprived children. These are initiatives that have a big impact on the ground but also capture what works and, through evidence, try and lever wider transformational change. They have a high chance of impact but also, because they are so incredibly ambitious, an in-built risk of failure.

When your overriding objective is saving and changing children’s lives it can be tempting to be cautious and keep doing the same things the same way. I understand that instinct, but it is completely wrong. It is precisely because what we do involves children and because lives are at stake that we have to be prepared to take bold decisions that might not work. We have done that by merging with another charity — Merlin — to create a world class front-line health team (the ‘Emergency Health Unit’) and by being willing to take on unprecedented challenges, like running an ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone, which stretched us beyond our comfort zone. We have been lucky that both initiatives worked, but I would be lying if I said there was any certainty that they would.

Applying these lessons has taken us closer to the kind of innovative, porous, networked organisation these times demand, but we still have a long way to go before we have fulfilled our potential. As I pass on this extraordinary organisation to the next lucky person to walk in Eglantyne Jebb’s lengthy shadow, I would urge them — and others — to be inspired but not constrained by that inheritance and to be as radical in creating something fit for our century as she was in building something transformative for hers.

This article originally appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2015