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The business of charity: focus on values, not just value

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 12 Jan 2022

Aligning your charity’s strategy to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) helps cement a value-driven business that benefits society as well as charity beneficiaries – but it’s also good for business.

Nathan Baker, CEO of the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM), says using the UN SDGs as a framework can re-energise your organisation’s purpose, and help you to get employee and stakeholder buy-in and deliver greater value.

IOM is a charity that sets out to protect and improve people’s health through the workplace and wider environment through independent application of science. It also has a commercial arm, supplying a range of services, training and consultancy on areas including COVID-19 transmission, air quality and occupational hygiene.

Baker, who will present a session at ICAEW’s upcoming Charity Conference, admits that when he stepped into the CEO role around a year ago, the organisation had lost focus. “As an organisation, we were missing opportunities to explain to staff, clients and wider beneficiaries of our work who we are, why we exist and what impact we have had. We were talking our own language to the wider world and the message was getting lost,” Baker explains.

Distilling IOM’s raison d’être aligned against relevant UN SDGs into an accessible document has helped to transform the organisation and give it a renewed sense of purpose and focus. “The UN SDGs gave a common understanding of what good looks like and helped employees to challenge why they do what they do and drive better outcomes,” Baker explains.

“We created a very simple one-page strategy that says from 2021-2026 this is what our outcomes will be, this is what our business will look like and these are the activities that we will do at a high level. This allows us to empower our people. I can manage my organisation and my people better by allowing people to set their own objectives and understand the tasks that they have crafted. This is about understanding the outcomes we want to achieve and getting people to think for themselves so they can play their part in helping us to get there.”

The SDGs have given us a framework that we can always refer back to, which means we’re delivering wider good, but what it enables more than anything else is a common conversation starter that isn’t just about making money, which is short-termist.

Regardless of the kind of organisation in question – Baker’s career spans organisations across the public sector, armed services and private sector across company sizes – the need for a unifying purpose has never been greater, Baker believes. “There is a mindset among leaders that they are there to make money, but by having a unifying purpose and delivering true value it’s possible to not only make more money but also to better contribute to society.”

The UN SDGs offer a simple, structured framework, Baker explains. “There are 17 goals that break down into a series of targets and actions and it was a case of thinking about which we need to do better for our customers and beneficiaries and which affect us internally. 

“If you can’t find something within the SDGs that your business is contributing to, you need to look at why you’re in business,” Baker suggests. “If you’re just there to make money or satisfy shareholder need, how do you move forward?”

For IOM, its operational focus is on SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 11 (making cities safe, resilient and sustainable) and SDG 9 (industry innovation and infrastructure). “It does mean that when we bid for work or create a new product or service we explicitly ask, does it contribute to these SDGs. The trick is not to spread yourself too thinly,” Baker says.

Reflecting those external SDGs into the business also helps to focus employees’ minds on the things that need to be a priority so they don’t get distracted by non-core activities, Baker says. “If you want to have a really good workplace where you deliver value, where you are energised and where you have the enthusiasm to deliver high-quality work, you can’t be a jack of all trades and master of none. It has to be about focus.”

Focusing on the UN SDGs also gives IOM a stronger story, which makes it easier for us to attract good people in a competitive market, Baker believes. “I may not be able to pay the highest salaries, but I can give people job satisfaction and value-driven work that they’re in control of.”

Nine months in and the SDG alignment model is already paying dividends for IOM – profit is up, it is engaging in more value-added work and well-positioned to capitalise on new commercial opportunities. “It has enabled us to focus on our business and on client need,” Baker says. “We have reframed our brand and verified our values, mission and purpose.

As we emerge from the pandemic, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the value that is delivered by charitable organisations. Baker’s encouragement to other charities looking to move forward is to simplify your message both internally and externally, be succinct and be clear on your purpose.

“We’ve realised there are some things that we are really good at and we need to do more of. But it has made us question why we do other things – just because we’ve always done it isn’t an answer. To be able to encourage people to say no has probably been the most powerful thing we have done.”

  • Nathan Baker will be one of the speakers at ICAEW’s upcoming annual Charity Conference taking place on 20-21 January. The virtual event will cover vital accounting, governance and taxation updates and keynotes from speakers including the CEO of the British Red Cross and the Fundraising Regulator. See the programme in full and register here.

Charity Conference 2022

Designed to prepare you with the knowledge and inspiration to succeed with vital accounting, governance and taxation updates affecting the charity sector.

ICAEW's Charity Conference 2022 - 20 & 21 January

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