'Living and breathing our values helps me focus on the ‘why’ in tough times’

In the unique position as leader of a charity that is also funder, Eleanor Harrison, CEO of Impetus talks to Charity Times about how a focus on values helps her approach the challenges that this throws up.

The charity sector is struggling. We are needed more than ever, but sufficient funding is scarce and charity leaders are all feeling the pressure.

At Impetus, we find, fund, and build some of the best organisations working to deliver better education and employment outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a charity, we face the universal challenges of delivering our mission, fundraising, attracting and retaining high quality staff, fulfilling our equity, diversity and inclusion commitments, building a great culture in a hybrid working environment and making sure we are governed well. But, as a funder that works alongside 25 impressive CEOs of social impact organisations we also see their struggles – and those of the charity sector as a whole - up close.

So what lessons have we learned since Impetus was founded, 21 years ago?

Values matter

Organisational values help us to hold onto the ‘why’ when faced with challenges. So rather than dusting these off once a year, we make sure they are woven into daily decision making.

Few decisions are bigger for us than which charities we fund and partner with.

Diversity in decision making

An oft cited statistic is that for every 48 charities Impetus considers, only one joins our portfolio. The work that goes on behind this is immense, so how do we know we are making the right decisions?

Until 2021, our approach to finding charities was predominantly through networks and desk research. This had obvious limitations, and there were many brilliant organisations we were not reaching.

So, guided by our values, we changed our approach.

We held our first open grant round, and proactively sought a demonstrable commitment to diversity as part of our investment criteria. We made sure social mobility runs through this work by investing in more earlier stage organisations.

We launched a Fund focused on reducing the employment gap faced by young people from ethnic minority, disadvantaged backgrounds, and a Leadership Academy, to help future leaders from minoritised communities into senior positions in the youth sector.

We know we have more to do to make Impetus fairer and smarter across our work, and we are learning as we go.

Partnerships are key

Impetus provides long term, unrestricted, six figure funding and an Investment Director, to work with charity leaders, up to a day a week, sometimes for over a decade.

Building partnerships that are high trust and high challenge is hard. It is essential on both sides to invest the time, kindness, integrity and honesty needed to build and sustain these healthy long-term relationships. This is core to the successful delivery of our mission.

But when the time comes, how do we approach the challenge of ending these partnerships well?

Owning our mistakes

There are many reasons why we might stop working with a charity – a change of mission, they might have achieved significant growth and it’s time for us to move on. And sometimes partnerships just don’t work out.

In these circumstances, we try to be brave and open. Listening and learning for what has worked and where we have made mistakes.

I feel a deep responsibility as a charity leader to be honest about my own mistakes and role model this. After all, we shouldn’t expect our partners to share their mistakes with us, if we don’t do the same.

It’s by living and breathing our values, and communicating them well, that we aim to be the best possible charity and funder that we can be in the relentless pursuit of excellence for the young people we exist to serve.

Eleanor Harrison OBE is the former Chief Executive of Impetus

Find out more

Impetus Insights - May 2024

Welcome to Impetus Insights, a place where we discuss ideas, articles and interesting reading about education and employment policy.
Read More

Impetus Insights - April 2024

Welcome to Impetus Insights, a place where we discuss ideas, articles and interesting reading about education and employment policy.
Read More

Impetus Insights - March 2024

Welcome to Impetus Insights, a place where we discuss ideas, articles and interesting reading about education and employment policy.
Read More