Felicia Willow

Dec 5, 2022, 12:00 PM

Charity reviews – how to spot a good one

By Felicia Willow

I spend quite a bit of my time doing reviews. I do organisational strength reviews, governance reviews, crisis reviews and structure reviews, to mention a few.

As someone who started out as a lawyer before launching into my charity career, I find the process of digging into an organisation, analysing what’s going on compared with the rules and best practice, and helping them figure out their next steps, both satisfying and fascinating.

But a good review isn’t as simple as pointing out the differences between best practice and reality.

Looking beyond best practice

Anyone who has read the Charity Governance Code recognises that the standards set out there are highly aspirational. While I think the Charity Governance Code is a great piece of work, for many organisations it can be off-putting. You can’t simply bonk people over the head with what they’re not doing perfectly and expect that to help.

Many of the charities I’ve come across have turned away from best practice as they’ve found it overwhelming. They’ve stopped looking at what they should be doing as it simply feels too far removed from their daily reality.

Ours is a unique sector: we are still recovering from the pandemic; now facing massive reductions in giving due to the cost of living crisis; reliant on volunteers as the backbone of the workforce; and run by underpaid and overworked staff, who turn up every day out of sheer grit and passion. In this environment, it’s completely understandable that people may not want to be told that nothing they do is good enough.

Shining a light on the whole organisation

A good review should, therefore, first seek to understand where you are as an organisation. How do things work in practice? What are the unique specifics that might affect how you do things? What’s going right – and what’s going wrong? This means a lot of information gathering and a lot of talking with people at every level.

One of the things I find most illuminating is when I ask a range of individuals the same question. For example, “How comfortable are Trustees in challenging each other?” or “Does everyone on the Board have a copy of the constitution and do they know what it says?” [Hint – I don’t get the same answer. And that in itself is very revealing].

Finding out what is really happening in a charity is like shining a small torch on a globe. Each conversation, each paper, adds another light. Eventually, the whole globe is visible.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe that quiz-based, self-assessment tools are worth doing. It’s one light. You’ll see reflecting back at you one tiny part of the whole, and that part alone will not be representative of reality. If you really want to know what’s going on, you need an independent, thorough reviewer to come in and turn on all those lights.

Prioritising next steps

Once you have all the information and can see the globe, it’s about working out what’s most important to move forward on. These steps have to be practical, realistic, tailored and relevant.

The way I see it is that there is a charity development spectrum. Every charity has its place on that spectrum, and its next steps are about moving onwards and upwards. If you imagine that spectrum has 100 steps, there’s no point telling someone on step 4 about how they need to hit step 78. It’s just going to put them off. What we need to figure out is how to move them along to step 10. Then step 15.

But the order of those steps will differ across different organisations. And it’s the job of the reviewer to figure that out.

This needs to take into account everything from capacity to resources to people. It’s also not about regurgitating the best practice recommendations, but considering whether they need to be adapted to meet the realities of the charity concerned. The options for an international, multi-million-pound charity with 400 staff members will be vastly different from a village hall charity with six Trustees and one part-time underpaid administrator.

Communicating change

As a change manager, I know that communication is at the heart of successful change. Conducting a review – even before any change is considered – should be seen as part of the change management process. From the moment you start talking to people, there’s an opportunity to communicate – to raise awareness and understanding and to prepare the groundwork so that later decisions are understood and accepted.

There are also always those who think that looking at operational effectiveness is a waste of time, so the conversation itself can help to improve understanding about how getting organisational effectiveness right is essential to operational success.

Finally, we need to work out how further development steps – and repeated reviews – can be incorporated into organisational planning, so the movement up the development spectrum becomes part of business as usual.

So, while I might be entirely biased, I believe charity reviews are essential to success, where they are done with good consultation, effective communication and with constant regard to the unique situation of the charity concerned.

If you would like external help with your end-of-year review, please email office@actionplanning.co.uk


Felicia Willow

Felicia Willow is a Charity Consultant and Interim CEO who specialises in charitable governance, strategic planning and interim management. She has led seven charities successfully through transformational change, and works with dozens of others facilitating away days, carrying out reviews, and providing advice and support to help find the best way forward. 

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