How does an 850-year-old charity stay relevant?

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For nearly eight and a half centuries, St John’s Foundation has been working to support the community of Bath and the surrounding area. It all began in 1174, when Bishop Reginald Fitzjocelyn established a medieval refuge to provide food and shelter for the poor and vulnerable in his parish.

Eight hundred and fifty years later, the St John’s of today continues to offer accommodation and support;  to say that we’ve had to adapt over time, is an understatement. The length of tenure is testament to our ability to move with the times and continue to deliver a wide range of services that address the changing needs of our community.

So, with hundreds of years of experience under our belt, what lessons have we learned in staying relevant?

Stay in tune with the community

The mission which underpins the basis of St John’s is to support and meet the needs of our community. Unsurprisingly, this means staying in tune with the current challenges that people are facing and which areas need the greatest support.

Issues are not stagnant; they morph and evolve over time. They ebb and flow in relation to the broader economic landscape and for a charity at the centre of it, the implications are two-fold.

It requires knowing how to get help to those who need it most and checking in regularly to ensure that needs are still being met. Having employees who are part of the fabric of the community and live within it, is of course helpful, but so is opening up lines of communication with the wider population.

Gathering feedback via surveys and research or simply speaking to people is crucial to measuring that our decisions remain grounded in data and evidence, not assumption.

The success of information gathering also boils down to reputation within the region. A relationship of mutual trust needs to be built with those we are serving, so they feel comfortable in providing reliable feedback whether positive or negative.

Be willing to adapt

Any long-standing charity needs to be open and willing to make changes. Whilst this might sound straightforward, being able to swallow ones pride and admit that something is no longer working is easier said than done. Despite best intentions, not every project or initiative will achieve its intended goal, that is the nature of life, but what counts is how an organisation is able to take this on board.

Understanding that a plan is not coming to fruition is not a reflection on the charity itself, it allows an organisation to use the experience to adapt and move forward, rather than taking it to heart. Lessons drawn from failures are far more beneficial to staying relevant, and for every project that doesn’t hit the mark, there will be one that exceeds expectations. Good charity leaders understand that life is unpredictable and will make a plan A, B and C to ensure they are prepared no matter what.

Realise your limitations

If you’ve ever decided to donate to charity, you will know how many good causes there are to choose from and the dilemma of being unable to give to all of them. No cause is more ‘worthy’ than the next so there isn’t a wrong decision to make, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Charities are the same – whilst it would be amazing to be able to solve every issue out there, budgets and resources simply cannot stretch that far, and it can be bitter pill to swallow. But ultimately charities are gatekeepers of the precious funds they have been given, and as such are responsible for ensuring that funds are reaching where they are needed most.

This means prioritising and streamlining processes.  It also means recognising your limitations. Understanding where your limits lie and accepting that you cannot address everything is a true skill, and one which, once mastered, will allow you to put all your energy and enthusiasm into what you can change, rather than dwelling on what you can’t.

Those in the charity and not-for-profit sectors face a unique set of challenges – they cannot simply stockpile reserves for a rainy day, there are limits to what they are allowed to keep back for ‘emergencies.’ So, for them, ensuring that the charity can continue functioning will always be of the upmost importance.

There is not a whole lot of room to manoeuvre and therefore leaders must be extremely considered and targeted in where and when they spend money. Although it may be difficult to decide not to continue with a worthwhile campaign because the money is needed more urgently elsewhere, this is a better scenario than throwing caution to the wind and losing the ability to help anyone if funds become depleted. Hard decisions will always need to be made but being able to move forward positively is what sets a charity apart.

Passionate employees

The people are what make your charity and are the key to ensuring that you stay innovative, creative and ahead of the curve. That is why it’s so important that your workforce contains a diverse range of voices.

To make good decisions, differing perspectives are crucial, whether that be age, ethnicity, gender, or background. Somewhere along the line, the absence of diversity of thought risks  ‘missing a trick’. Employees bring with them their own experiences and may point out solutions or considerations that have been missed – not to mention the fact that each will likely represent a part of the community that the charity is supporting.

Employing passionate, innovative people, that think outside of the box and aren’t afraid to say what they think, will guarantee that your cause stays front of centre of everything you do.