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Confessions of a small charity chief executive

The length of my to-do list could make a person weep

I mucked something up recently.

Shocking, I know.

My colleague suggested that I write this article, and I thought to myself that I’d certainly have a lot of material.

The process for this article has been what not to include from the oodles of ****-ups I have made. I also consulted a band of other small charity chief executives who confirmed that my experiences are not unique.

On with my six secret confessions.

1. I lose sleep over my work

That’s the first thing you should know. My job is stressful. And I care deeply about it. So, I frequently lie awake worrying about things. I have terrible work-life balance, made much worse by the pandemic as now it feels like I’m sleeping in the office.

I’m lucky enough to work school hours which means I see my kids every day after school until they go to bed, and then I often start work again until I go to bed.

And if you repeatedly get an email from me at 8am on a weekday, that’s because I schedule my emails so you don't get them at evenings and weekends which is when I'm often writing them.

2. I’m pretty rubbish at some of my job

We don’t have a finance team, an HR team, a fundraising team (and so on). I am all of those things and more. When someone asks to speak to our “finance team”, I laugh bitterly to myself and reply politely: “I can help you with that”.

I can’t possibly be good at everything, and I am heavily and joyfully reliant on our team of trustees, associates, volunteers, supporters and wider partners.

3. I’m pretty good at other bits of my job

There are some parts of my job that I am really rather good at, thank you very much.

One of the brilliant things about being a small charity chief executive is exactly what makes it tricky: I get to try my hand at all sorts of stuff. Sometimes I find that I have talents I might never have discovered if I was a specialist.

For example, I have built up an enviably large network on social media, which has been essential to Getting on Board’s growth and impact. I had no training, I just winged it. People ask me for my strategy for becoming an “influencer”, and I fall off my seat laughing. Confession: there was no strategy.

4. I’m one step away from dropping all of the balls

The length of my to-do list would make you weep.

It’s also an amusing combination of massively strategic “draft KPIs” and vastly operational “send log-ins to Fiona”.

What we achieve with our level of resources is astounding. We punch above our weight. We also over-stretch ourselves to achieve that and, shock horror, we’re not as slick as we might be sometimes.

One of my small charity CEO colleagues likened this to one of those cartoons where you lay the tracks as you go.

5. Power dynamics get up my nose

I'm nice to your face, but I might be secretly thinking that you're a pillock for not being sensitive to the fact that Getting On Board is a tiny organisation.

For example, the big company who demands a reply by the end of the day in a message sent at 3:15pm, and then takes weeks to reply to our emails.

Or the large (always large) organisation that takes months and months to pay for a service that we have already delivered.

And don’t ask me for a proposal unless you are genuinely considering working with us. I find it's often shorthand for: "We're done here and I'm not brave enough to tell you, so what I'll do is give a small charity chief executive more work and a bit of hope".

6. I love my work

Yes it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Why else would I do something so all-consuming, poorly paid and stressful?

Being a small charity chief executive: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting On Board. For small charity chief executives reading this and nodding along, if you’re not a member of the Facebook group “Small Charity CEOs”, get yourself signed up for mutual back-patting and communal hair-tearing. This article originally appeared in Third Sector magazine.

Image by Thomas Bormans at Unsplash


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