People swimming


My first leadership experience was when I was quite young. Soon after leaving university, I found myself leading a small grassroots project in South Africa providing training to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. I knew very little about running a project, and equally little about leadership. I had the job title of a leader and people to be led but really, I didn’t know what to do.

Fast forward many years later, I found myself in a similar position. This time the stakes seemed so much higher. I was CEO of a high-profile charity. Despite the charity’s recognition as a provider of support to other charities, we were facing our own struggles. However, by this stage, I knew quite a bit more about running an effective and efficient charity.  Over the many years in between these two leadership roles, I’d led on the development of the charity sector industry standards. But actually, being responsible as the head of a charity felt very different. This was the real thing!

As charity leaders, we all have things we are not confident in doing, as well as established strengths. Finding ways to address these gaps is key to your success as a leader. Difficult, when you don’t have money to throw at the problem. 

Pro bono support is a real lifeline

Throughout my leadership journey a clear pattern was emerging, I clearly enjoyed ‘jumping in the deep end’ and figuring out my way to the top.  (Ironically, as a child this is how I was taught to swim). I relished fixing things and getting them back on track.  But I needed support. Over the 30 years of the organisation’s existence, we’d done the same thing – well, and yes very successfully. Suddenly others were competing in the same field and the market we were in had become a very crowed space.  

I can’t quite remember but somehow, I learnt about Pilotlight. But I do remember being quite anxious that the charity wouldn’t be accepted. We really needed help to consider our future direction, wanted outside expert challenge. We wanted a team who could help us think beyond the immediate horizon and into the future.

Once accepted, we embarked on a ten-month programme of support from Pilotlight. The Pilotlighter team offered the perfect mix of expertise finance, property development (we owned our building) and marketing. I remember how much I wanted and needed from them at the time.

The programme was structured, tailored to consider all aspects of organisational life. We grappled with setting programme aims until we got them right.  At first, I focused on putting my best foot forward, perhaps hiding the areas of weakness and resisting being fully open and transparent. The team worked patiently nudging, probing with the ultimate focus of getting to the heart of the issue. Our focus was on strategy development but something else was changing inside of me, which I did not really realise at the time. 

Fast forward a year or so

Eventually my organisation merged with another, bigger charity. The strategy was to achieve scale and this was our best option.  My confidence had grown enormously from Pilotlight’s support.  Something I wasn’t fully aware of at the time.  It was months after the experience with Pilotlight, and after the stress of undergoing a merger had subsided, that I was able to reflect on the experience and what I had learned.

This led me to accept the offer of becoming a Pilotlighter myself.  I was approached by Pilotlight to be one of the first of a number of charity leaders to receive a funded placed on the Pilotlight 360 programme. I jumped at the opportunity to offer support in this way, with the perspective of having been through the very same support package.

There were many lessons I’d learned from my own experience which I wanted to inform how I engaged in supporting another charity leader, including:

  • The Pilotlighter team is there to support you – this means its ok to show vulnerability and not knowing
  • The team will coach you, creating a reflective space for learning, not to tell you what to do
  • Embrace the more difficult conversations, this is where real learning and understanding takes place
  • Be open and transparent when it’s not working, you are there to get what you need and anything else is a waste of time
  • Enjoy it for all that it will bring.

Many years later, I found myself drawn to Pilotlight yet again

In November 2021 I joined the team as the new Head of Delivery having taken over from Charlie Hayter, my Project Manager all those years ago.

I’ve experienced both sides of our work.  I know what it means to be the charity leader faced with so much talent and skill beckoning to help. I know what is means to be a Pilotlighter desperately rooting for a leader to grow.  And now I better understand how best to bring these two together to achieve transformational change.

I am totally passionate about what we do at Pilotlight. I believe in the full potential of all charity leaders, given the right support and time to reflect they can achieve great things. I believe in being hugely demanding of our Pilotlighters to give their very best, as they always do. And I trust in the Pilotlight team to bring people together in the best way possible to make the magic really happen.

I encourage all of you, whoever you are to come forward and give it a try. Charity leaders and Pilotlighters, see for yourselves what Pilotlight can do for you. It’ll be far more supportive than the way I learnt to swim.

Written by
Profile picture for user Sam Matthews
Sam Matthews
Head of Delivery - Pilotlight

Ready to take the plunge?

Seven out of 10 small and medium sized charities are actively looking for pro bono professional skills to support what they do, but only four out of 10 find it.

Pilotlight is a charity that amplifies the impact charities, business and individuals can bring to make a better world.

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