Amber Sainsbury is the CEO and Founder of Dramatic Need, a creative arts charity that helps vulnerable African children. The charity will celebrate their 10th Anniversary in 2017.
Leadership is - to me - much more about asking for help than passing on instructions. And it isn’t just about inspiring people that your cause is valid. Not everyone will be sold on an idea through your personal conviction.
There is a lot of understandable rhetoric about leaders and leadership, often designed to encourage and enthuse young people to go on and do great things. Words like vision, inspiration and transformation are frequently associated with the concept, and we are inundated with pithy quotes from Ghandi to Mandela on coffee cups and T-shirts reminding us why these leaders were so effective in forging change. However, in a day-to-day model of leading a group or organisation, neither lofty visions of change or didactic methods of working are, in my view, necessarily the most helpful. It must also be about being open with people as to where your weaknesses lie and letting them help. Partly because they are inspired by what your organisation is trying to do - of course! - but also because it is empowering for both individuals and groups to know that their impact will be noted and substantial.
I have frequently been told to not mention to people that we are a ‘small’ charity. The fear seems to be that we will be seen as less able, less important and therefore overlooked. However, much like lying about your age, it seems to me that pretending you are what you are not will catch up with you eventually. Instead, I find being up front about your limitations helps people you are approaching to feel that they stand to make a real difference. It is important to admit that you are stuck, that you don’t have the resources, the personnel or know-how to achieve something. It’s also important to see yourself not just as a leader, but as someone who is also a follower, willing to be led and to learn about something in which you lack expertise.
Dramatic Need employs just four people across two continents, and yet we have three functioning community art centres, work with several thousand children per year and put on participatory fundraisers which have involved globally recognised creative talents from Anish Kapoor to Nicole Kidman to Benedict Cumberbatch.
It is not that our cause is more valid that the next, and certainly not that I am a more inspiring leader than the next person. It is simply that we ask for help prolifically and candidly, from everyone across the social and creative sectors. Thousands of people have been involved with this charity, some for very short amounts of time, some for longer, but all of them have been directly asked for help because we didn’t know how, or we couldn't do it without them.
There is something to be said for keeping overheads limited, with as much of the funds and impact of what you do being spent on the people and the cause you are trying to help. This is only possible if your team remains small and enthusiastic, with a wide skill-set and the ability to roll up their sleeves and get on with any aspect of the job. This too is about asking people to help out in the right way. There is an increasing trend towards specialisation within the workplace. Titles like ‘social media manager’ are great in a large company as the more specific your job specs are, the easier it is to fit into a well-oiled machine. However, in a small charity everyone has to be able to do everything. If one of your team doesn’t know how to do something, teach them. If you don’t know how to do something, ask them to teach you. Smart delegating is of course a crucial part of leadership, but keeping on top of the detail and knowing how everything works is essential. Small teams mean if someone is ill or occupied, you have to be prepared to step in and do it yourself.
Some things to consider:
1. Both people who are well established in their professions and people who are just starting out want to make the greatest impact with their time/money/talent or expertise. No one enjoys these things being wasted. The advantage of a small charity is that the effort/impact ratio of anyone involved can stand in your favour. Make that clear.
2. Tell people what you need in specific terms early on. Tell them why the cause is different and important, but also communicate clearly what you need. For example, ‘please attend our event’ or ‘please be our visual marketing partner’ could mean different things to different people.
3. Small charities are often niche charities. Make sure your mission statement and branding are clear, succinct and impactful so that you don’t get bogged down trying to explain your cause before getting to the point of asking for what you need.
4. It might seem obvious, but never lose touch with anyone who has helped you in the past, or who you think might be helpful in the future. Keep a detailed and cohesive database of everyone you and your team meet, and keep them up to date and informed with the work you are doing. The social sector is small; every time you can remember someone’s name and how they helped (no matter how small their contribution) the better the chances are that they will support you in the future. Simple, but important personal touches.
5. Make sure that you are not asking anyone in your team to do something which you couldn’t do yourself. Small can mean lean and efficient, it can’t mean elitist or heavily stratified. Of course job specifications are necessary, but make sure you hire team members who, when the chips are down, are also happy to do take on the unspecific task.