Published by Charity Digital

Ed Mayo is the CEO of Pilotlight, a charity whose mission is to help other charities help people as effectively as possible. They do this through free programmes that help professionals apply and grow their skills with help from business experts, enabling them to tackle their most pressing challenges as an organisation.

This is an exercise in capacity building: helping charities maximise their impact through developing their skills, instincts, abilities, processes, and resources. This can help them to “survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast-changing world”. 

This interview explores the meaning of building capacity in charities and how the U.K. charity sector can grow its capacity to make a difference through digital technology and new types of funding support. Bringing this together, it considers the many ways that the sector can tackle the shared challenge of climate change. 

Charity Digital: What are the signs that organisations are having capacity issues?  

Ed Mayo: The twin environmental emergencies of our day – climate risk and biodiversity risk (the loss of habitats and species) – can be seen, from a human perspective, as challenges of organisation. Our current system of institutions has accelerated the damage. A new set of institutions has to chart the path towards a more sustainable future. 

The capacity-building gap is therefore urgent and compelling. It is not just that the 6,000+ environmental charities across the U.K. need support to do what they do today (and they do, with frequent weaknesses for example around leadership, governance and diversity). It is that they need to spur and spread and scale in order to do what is essential tomorrow.    

The organisational challenge is one that I know myself. For any environmental charity, it is the question of how you are able to bridge the gap between your mission of a greener future and what they do to help make that happen; in short, what they do on a Monday. 

I found this myself when I started as CEO of a green charity in 1992. The charity was the New Economics Foundation and the trustees had been just about to close the organisation when one trustee, Jakob Von Uexkull, raised funding from a network of philanthropists for three years for someone to come in and take it forward. That was a younger me.  

The mission of the charity was a just and sustainable economy, which is visionary but also a tough ask of a small charity, so what was I to do on a Monday? 

I started by looking at all we were doing, on projects and with volunteers, to see where there was life and energy that I could work with. What emerged over time was a powerful way of working at an exciting time in which the charity developed and promoted tools that could advance a just and sustainable economy. 

When I left, 11 years later, we had over 50 staff and were ‘Think Tank of the Year’ with a reputation for innovation. 

Capacity building is about bringing tomorrow forward. Charities are all about tomorrow’s cause and there are few more unifying causes right now than that of the environment, understood as our shared future. 

Read the full interview in Charity Digital.