A rocket shooting into the air

It’s easy to give money to a charity. It’s much harder to give your time. To give a chunk of your time, you have to give a lot more of yourself. However, if you do, I can guarantee it’ll be one of the most rewarding things you do.

When I joined Pilotlight in 2006 I’d worked in the city of London all my life. I started out in stockbroking and investment banking, before moving into fund management where I worked for 12 years. I'd got to the point in my career where I wanted to give something back. I was sure my business experience would be relevant to the charitable sector, as it’s a sector that relies upon people and change management; all things I have experience in. How I could give that experience back to a charity in a meaningful and impactful way I didn’t know. That’s where Pilotlight came in.

Since joining I’ve worked with 17 charity CEOs and their boards to help them develop strategies for success and sustainability. The common problems we come across are with HR, governance, money, and perhaps surprisingly, real estate. To tackle these wide ranging challenges in business you’d have most of that experience around the table. Due to the unique group mentoring model Pilotlight has established, you do. This group setting is very effective for passing on the lessons you’ve learnt in business. Each time you work with a new Pilotlighter team, all from different backgrounds and experiences, you not only learn about the charity and help them, you also learn from the members of your team too. I’ve made some very good friends through Pilotlight.

What have I learnt from being a Pilotlighter?

Primarily, it’s opened my eyes to the lack of financial security charities face. If you said to the average chief executive of a commercial company that they would only have a few months funding in reserves, they would be shocked. Everyone who works in the charity sector is working for an organisation that is precarious because they don’t have the financial security of most businesses.

Generally, charities would say their problem is needing more money, but another thing I’ve learnt over the years is that people issues are often key, regardless of how much money they raise. There is no doubt that the reduction in government funding over the last 10 years has put a lot of risk on to the charity sector. When I first became a Pilotlighter I was surprised by how, in small not-for-profit organisations, internal relationships between members of staff can dominate. This no longer surprises me, and is something we see often. There can be a reluctance to tackle these kinds of issues because there’s a feeling that everyone is in it together. If a charity is less effective in its delivery of services because of HR issues this must be addressed.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge in any charity engagement is teasing out from the charity CEO what the real problem is. You have to build up trust before they’ll be completely honest with you, which is only natural. In the early meetings there’s a lot of fact finding, which also gives you time to build trust. There has to be openness, trust and genuine discussion before you’re going to be able to help them change anything.

One charity I worked with, for example, had found that different forms of art were good therapy. They considered themselves to be an arts charity, and didn’t want to be seen as a medical charity, even though they’d discovered that service users became involved to improve their mental health. Through some very honest and open discussions during the Pilotlight engagement, we were able to encourage them to move from having an art focus to medical one. This unlocked a lot of the money, and has been a very beneficial move for them. It was a huge strategic shift, and couldn’t have been done unless we’d built up complete trust and worked well as a team of Pilotlighters.

Has being a Pilotlighter inspired you in any way?

It’s good to get out of the business bubble. I’ve discovered that I feel more committed to a cause if I give my time to it, and applying my experience to a completely different world is an enjoyable challenge. It’s humbling to see people who work extremely hard under a lot of pressure to make people’s lives better. The ripple effect of what we do as Pilotlighters can be very wide ranging, and knowing I’ve been part of that, has been very good for my soul.

If you’re interested in becoming a Pilotlighter, join us.

Written by
Profile picture for user David Burnett
David Burnett
Pilotlighter - Partner and Senior Business Advisor at TT International