An interview with Rene Olivieri – PODCAST

Rene Olivieri, chairman of both the National Trust and RSPCA, joins us to share insight on his career and the non-profit sector. 

An interview with Rene Olivieri – PODCAST

Rene Olivieri, chairman of both the National Trust and RSPCA, joins us to share insight on his career and the non-profit sector.

Meet the authors

Ed Kemp Sloan

Principal Consultant

Sarah Rigby

Principal Consultant

Rene Olivieri

Chair, The National Trust, RSPCA

Rene Olivieri has been working with not-for-profits in various roles for more than 25 years and is currently Chair at the National Trust and RSPCA.

In the first episode of our brand new podcast series ‘Knowing Not for profits’, non-profit experts Ed Kemp Sloan and Sarah Rigby chat to Rene about his career to date and any trends, challenges and opportunities the industry is facing. 

They discuss the importance of trust, collaboration and setting small steps in order to achieve goals and the part an innovative mindset plays in success. 

Listen here or read on for an edited transcript.

Welcome to Knowing not-for-profits a podcast series where Clarasys consultants will be talking through some of the most pressing issues from the not-for-profit world, bringing together thought leaders and industry experts to discuss their real-life experiences on these topics. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: Welcome everyone to the first episode of the new, not-for-profit podcast series. My name is Ed Kemp Sloan, and I’m one of the not-for-profit experts at Clarasys. And today I’m joined by my Clarasys colleague and not-for-profit specialist Sarah Rigby. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: We’re very excited to welcome Rene Olivieri, chairman of both the National Trust and RSPCA, who’s been working with not-for-profits in various roles for more than 25 years.

Ed Kemp Sloan: So, hello everyone. 

Rene Olivieri: Hiya! 

Sarah Rigby: Hello. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: So first of all, big thank you for coming along today, Rene. We really appreciate your time and also for being our first guest of the series. And I thought it’d be great to kind of kick things off and hear a bit more about how you got into the non-profit space and why you did it.

Introducing Rene Olivieri 

Rene Olivieri: Well, I was in academic scholarly scientific publishing for most of my professional career, and during that time I got very interested in nature and animal welfare being, as you know, an ex-farm boy and suddenly realising that not all animals lived the same lives as the ones that I grew up with.

Rene Olivieri: So I always had a kind of hankering to do something about the natural world and animal welfare in particular. When I was coming to the twilight of my professional career, working in a private company, publishing company, one of the shareholders sold his shares, I was involved in that transaction, set up a charity, and then unfortunately, died shortly thereafter. And in his will he asked me and a couple of other people, including two lawyers to take over responsibility for this charitable trust with the stipulation that we’d spend all our money in a fixed period of time. He didn’t have any children, so it was quite a significant sum of money, and so we were suddenly in the position just as I was coming out and going into “retirement” from paying work, where we had to come up with a strategy and decide what to do with this big chunk of money. And after some, we wrote a book about our experiences ’cause we made a lot of mistakes in the early going and wrote a book to basically share our lessons. And at the end of the day, we came to the conclusion that two areas that were really neglected were the environment. This is, we have to remember, this is 20, 25 years ago. And 2% of charitable giving went to the environment in those days, and farmed animal welfare with the big expansion, industrial agriculture. And so those were the two focus areas that really got me started on my charitable career. And when I left paid employment, I devoted more and more of my time to that.

Rene Olivieri: Following on from that, just to kind of finish the story, I went to the Wildlife Trust and became chair there. They have nearly 50 trust basin regions around the UK. That in turn led me – it’s really through one connection to another, to the Heritage Fund, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which is the biggest independent funder of the environment. And that in turn then led to the RSPCA and that led to the National Trust where I am also now chair and have been for the last 18 months or so. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: I think it’s really interesting, again, you talk about the journey you’ve taken through the different organisations you’ve worked with and I imagine there was something there kind of foundational in your ethos and personality that led you to want to work with those types of organisations. Was there anything that kind of inspired you to really take on that mantle or did it kind of come about by happenstance? 

What inspired you to want to do good in the world? 

Rene Olivieri: I think if you’ve had a successful career and you feel like you’ve been fortunate because we all know success in this world is largely or is at least very strongly influenced by luck and circumstance. And then you have the opportunity and the energy to do something in return. And I was a farm boy. Grew up as a farm boy, and suddenly thought, I’m never gonna live in the country again. And suddenly the natural world became very, very important to me again. I began to see what was happening to it, and I began to see that more and more animals were leading less good lives. More and more biodiversity was disappearing in this, my adopted homeland really. And I became really, really concerned about that and thought, what can I do to stop that? So for me, it is all about purpose, all of these things. It’s, you know, what is it that you really care passionately about? And to be positive about saying, no, if I care about this, if I think it’s not going in the right direction, I’m gonna do something about it, and more importantly, I’m gonna encourage other people to do something about it as well. So there are lots of people who aren’t very optimistic about the future of our planet. I am because I believe change is possible, and that other people really want to do good. They really need help in understanding and collaboration in achieving good things in the world. 

Rene Olivieri: And I guess the other thing is we all need to think longer term now. We know the planet is in trouble. We know a lot more about through science and through our economics and social analysis, the way in which the world is developing.

Rene Olivieri: So it’s more incumbent in us having that kind of knowledge about the direction we’re headed to actually take action to shape the future that we want for ourselves and more importantly for our children and their children. 

Sarah Rigby: I love that. I love to hear your passion, Rene, and you’ve had the opportunity to work at some incredible charities. So in your current role as chairman across two large charities, you obviously must see firsthand some of the challenges facing the not-for-profit sector. Whilst there are quite a lot, what would you say are kind of the main three challenges that you can see charities currently facing? 

What are the three main challenges charities are currently facing?

Rene Olivieri: Well, obviously everybody’s facing the economic crisis that we’ve got now. If you look at the National Trust for instance, it has a lot of buildings. Those buildings need to be heated. It has more than 10,000 staff. Those people need to have a living wage and need to be paid more because, the cost of living has increased and we’re, as the National Trust is in a relatively good financial position. We have a very stable membership base that has continued to support us through Covid and continues to support us now. I think financially, many organisations out there are struggling. 

Rene Olivieri: If you take the heritage sector, of course, tourism hasn’t really recovered. People aren’t as willing to travel as far ’cause it costs more to travel. So I think a lot of organisations in the third sector are suffering and the competition for funds has become greater. You know, we rely, this sector relies, not on government, not on businesses primarily, but on individual contributions and getting those contributions you’re competing often with other third sector organisations, but we all need to realise that the most important thing that we have or I suppose the most important asset is actually the goodwill and the brand and the feeling that people have that they want to support us, that they wanna do good work alongside us. So I think we have a lot of good assets as well. But it is a difficult economic time. 

Rene Olivieri: The other thing, of course, is that people are more sceptical, more critical. The demographics of the country are changing and we all need to realise that we share lots of things in common despite of this diversity. And this diversity is part of the richness of our society. So I think we need to be kind of positive that change is possible, change in our society and that we wanna be part of that positive direction. So it’s easy to get depressed and there are plenty of reasons for people to be worried. I’m a believer in optimism and positive change, and I’ve seen lots of good things that we can build on. And one of those, if I can just give you an example, is we saw during covid, during a time of crisis, time of personal risk, how many people were prepared to volunteer. And volunteering is one of those completely under-recognized parts of the economy. It doesn’t end up in any national statistics, and they are the people who give of themselves, who have the kind of mindset of generosity, personal generosity, engagement, passion, without any thought of private reward.

Rene Olivieri: The National Trust has 50,000 volunteers. They’re the kind of real ambassadors for the environmental movement, for the protection and preservation of heritage, and I think they deserve to be really recognized. I’m hopeful more people using new technologies and that you can do this micro-volunteering it’s called. You can move in and out and support an organisation without making a long-term commitment. I’m hopeful that more and more people will volunteer. And it’s a huge contribution to the economy. It’s great for these people themselves. It’s great for their own wellbeing and it’s great for the communities that they’re involved in. So volunteering is a huge, under-recognized, undervalued asset. 

Rene Olivieri: I call myself, I’m not paid, so I call myself the senior volunteer in the National Trust and very proud to be that. 

Customer experience vs employee experience vs volunteer experience 

Ed Kemp Sloan: I think it’s really interesting around the volunteer sector, and I think what we’ve seen from our experience in Clarasys of some of the organisations that have come to us to talk about the experience of their organisation, and it tends to either be more from a customer perspective, so those people who maybe are donating to your organisation. And then there’s the employee experience, so, those people who are paid by your organisation to do their job. I think what we are seeing more of now is there is I think more focus on volunteers generally and the volunteer experience. And as I said, they aren’t really there, obviously, they aren’t there to get paid, they are there to try and help a cause that they are passionate about, but I do think that it’s still important to give them that recognition and to say thank you and the small little things that can kind of inspire them to do a little bit more to bring their friends along, get their family involved. I think there’s a lot more that probably we as a consultancy can do around the area and support other organisations going through that journey of, we have people who do some ad hoc support to, they are much more an integral part of the organisation and they should be treated in that way. 

Rene Olivieri: Yeah, I think that’s really important what you’re saying. And all charities are there to provide a public benefit and they have a purpose. And of course, we all know about the danger of mission drift. But at the end of the day, you can provide a public benefit in many different ways. You know, you can provide a public benefit in terms of the action you might have for the RSPCA to help animals, but actually the relationship between animals and people, we are ourselves animals, is intertwined. If you are helping the animals, you’re probably helping the people. If you are helping the people, you’re probably helping the animals. And a lot of our work at the RSPCA, for instance, is becoming more about the prevention or understanding what the relationships are between people and people and animals and animals and realising how you can benefit one by benefiting the other. So I think it’s taking this holistic view. 

Why collaboration is key between charities 

Rene Olivieri: And in fact, one of the things that charities can do more often and don’t do enough of is seeden the join of their cause, their purpose, with others. Partly collaborating with others in the same sector, and certainly both the National Trust and the RSPCA are collaborating much more with other organisations that are similarly aligned and have similar purposes, but also, for instance, with the RSPCA, realising that some of the causes of poor animal welfare are also some of the causes of environmental degradation, so bad farming practices, for instance, and realising that actually by talking together, working together, you begin to create a holistic picture, and maybe you can put one and one together, get more than three, and provide a greater public benefit across the piece. So it’s important to see that wider context and not just be focused on your narrow bit of action. See where it fits into that wider landscape. So bigger, better, more joined up is what they say in ecology. I say that works as well in almost all NGO sectors. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: I think that’s a great point, and what we’ve seen recently with a couple of organisations who are looking to engage young people much more in their organisation and how they function day to day. And I went to a large retailer recently and talked a little bit around just some of the pro bono work that we do in the organisation talk through the challenge of, you know, how do we get more young people involved and this is their, kinda like a shadow board basically for this organisation. The retailer liked that so much that they’ve then taken that as an idea forward to their leadership team to say actually, could we not have a customer board and could we not have like a customer shadow board? And so not only do I think that there is lots of kind of the ability to, you know, join not-for-profits or NGOs together. I think there’s also a lot that the private sector can learn from the third sector and take some of those ideas through of how do you bring people together under a shared purpose and idea to really drive something forward. And we’ve seen it with other organisations recently as well, where we do have a couple of organisations that we’re working with at the moment in the charity space where again, they’ve got a similar problem of they have limited resources, they’re trying to work through what their impact is, they’ve got various systems that are quite similar, but they’ve got the same kind of system problems, and they’re actually learning from each other of how they’ve gone about tackling those technology problems. So rather than, again, coming to us or to a consultancy and saying, we don’t know what to do, we can actually refer them now just to each other and say, they’ve solved exactly that same problem. So you don’t need to come and kind of get our advice on this. We can just refer to them ’cause they’ve done this already. So I think there’s an awful lot to learn from different organisations overcoming very, very similar problems.

Rene Olivieri: Ooh, and lemme give you an example of a way in which you can turn the conversation and it’s very important to be open and listening to what people who don’t necessarily know a lot about your area of expertise and interest and how they express themselves. What they express as their desires and understanding in respect to the things that you are obsessed with all the time. And I’ll give you an example of something that I think is an interesting model going forward. Everybody’s been watching, I hope Wild Isles on the Attenborough narrated program on BBC about the wildlife in the British Isles. It’s fantastic. It’s sponsored by the National Trust, by RSPB and by the World Wildlife Fund, and this is showing people what we have of value, that needs protecting. That’s great entertainment, but it’s also very educational. On the back of that these three organisations collaborating together have called together a people’s assembly, and the idea is to get almost at random, 800 people from all walks of life, bring them together, without any intervention and guidance from the NGOs themselves, have experts come and brief them on various aspects of nature and the issues related to ecology and the environment. And then what they’ve done is they’ve drafted together a kind of manifesto, a people’s plan for nature. And I have to tell you, I’ve seen some of the results, it’s sophisticated people got it, they understood it. And the language they use is just slightly different probably better because it has resonance with them. So I should give you an example. We talk about restoration. They say renewal because you can’t go back, you can’t recreate the past. You’ve gotta move forward and realise with climate changes , adaptation things aren’t going to be the same. It’s going to be different, but we can renew it. And that was pretty inspirational. I mean, I get a little chill down my spine now, just thinking about that realization, listening to them talk to each other and we’ll be following through on that in a wider sense and doing consultation at the National Trust, where we’re gonna try to ask really open-ended questions and not try to lead people to answer in any particular way. And take that as real evidence about, okay, what do they want and also what language do they want it expressed in? So this is really important and with young people, it’s even more important to go out and ask an open-ended question. What do you want to do? What do you want from us? What do you think is important?

Sarah Rigby: I think that’s really interesting the asking people actually what they want because you’ve gotta build the trust with them really strong in order for them to continue volunteering for charities or donating money or being members whatever kind of the customer is in this sense. And in terms of trust, how do charities build that trust to the point where people have that connection to the purpose and the impact they’re trying to drive in society?

Sarah Rigby: How can charities ensure that they build the trust, but also that it’s maintained and it grows kind of within the changing demographic? 

How can charities build and maintain trust?

Rene Olivieri: Sarah, that’s kind of the key question. I always say it in the National Trust. You know, what’s our most important – we had a strategy session. What assets do we have? What relationships do we have? And wrote down all kinds of things. And I thought at the end of the day, it’s the goodwill and trust of the public. That is our most important asset ’cause at the end of the day, if you have a cause that you’re trying to change something to society or achieve a goal, you are never gonna do that on your own.

Rene Olivieri: No matter how big you are, no matter how many resources, societal change requires people to join you or to join up with you or to move things from in their own way in the, in the direction that you think things need to change. So it’s all about having the legitimacy to speak on those issues, but having the legitimacy that the privilege, the permission that they’ve given you to talk and act on their behalf, and that means being in dialogue with them and it means actually basically delivering on your own rhetoric. Being very careful when you say, this is what we’re going to do, this is what we believe. That all of your actions, all of the people in your organisation, everything you do doesn’t overpromise. It delivers on that, and it keeps moving that envelope out forward in a dialogue or conversation with the public and the behaviours come down to micro stuff. I mean at the RSPCA, I think it’s no surprise to anybody that there was a bad culture in the organisation. That culture has changed dramatically, and it started with the relationship I had as the new chair with this great chief executive who you know, Chris Sherwood there, and the way we’ve talked to each other, the trust that we had with each other. And then by extension, the trust that the trustees had with each other, the members of the board, and in due course. And we did a governance review today, and I’m happy to say it was with an expert in, and they were very, very pleased with the results that actually the relationship between the executive team and the other trustees was really excellent. And now the next thing we have to do is show that the quality of that relationship, the hygiene, the good relationships that we have at that board level executive, put that on display with the rest of the organisation so that they can believe that we are on their side, that we’re listening, and that we care about the same things that they do. So the consistency, you know, you trust somebody if they say they’re gonna do something, they say they’re believe something and their actions reflect what they’re saying, then you have trust. 

Rene Olivieri: And of course, selflessness is the key. If you’re a trustee, you have to realise it’s never about you. It’s always about the, it’s never really, even at the end of the day, as much about the organisation is about the wider social and public purpose that you serve. And if you are true to that northern star or whatever you want to call it, and everybody sees that you are, then they will trust you. They will trust you. So being disinterested in the best possible sense, not being interested in what it does for you, is absolutely the key to this. And it means everybody has to follow that suit.

Sarah Rigby: Yeah, and I love that with the north star as well because I think some of the charities that we work with might have a north star and have that defined, but actually how do they get there? That is the challenge. Or you might have people thinking they need to do different activities and there’s kind of complete misalignment. So actually developing, almost being able to link together what they’re doing day to day on the ground and we’re actually turning the dial and we’re taking one step closer to that north star. That’s really important. 

Challenges we have seen non-profits face based on end goals

Ed Kemp Sloan: I’d say with a lot of the organisations that we’re working with at the moment, we tend to see the end goal of most of these organisations will be to build trust, show transparency, which again, will build trust with your customer base or your volunteer base. And it tends to be broken into three different areas. So there’s, does the organisation understand what their purpose and ambition is and do they really understand, again, like is the whole like north star piece that we’ve talked about. I think the second piece is around defining your theory of change. So what is it that you’re actually trying to achieve? What are the various activities and inputs that you need to kind of consider in order to achieve that purpose? And then the third bit is just how do you actually then go ahead and make that happen? So that might be that they know what they want to do, but that isn’t there. They’re not quite sure what the various activities are that they can then do to push that forward. And I think it’s so important for organisations to really try to understand where their challenge area is. So kind of how far up that kind of pyramid they need to go in order to then start forming what they want to do next. And Sarah, I know there’s a bunch of organisations that we both work with that have been going through some of those challenges, and I wonder if we can maybe highlight a couple of instances where we’ve had those types of engagements. 

Sarah Rigby: Yeah, so working with a large charity at the moment, and they’re going through a massive technology transformation, which is really, really gonna help them to, from a customer point of view, be able to join up the dot. So if I engage with them from a volunteering point of view, and then I donate to them, they know who I am, and I can really feel that connection and I trust them because they know who I am and therefore I want to engage with them more and more. I think some of the challenges that we’re seeing there is, is the balance of how do you give people the comfort that that charity is doing the right thing. So they’re spending that money to help the organisation grow. And it’s not something you’re gonna be able to see tomorrow, the value of, but ultimately it’s gonna help stabilize and make sure that they survive and they can be sustainable going forward. And I think some of the challenges we see there is this type of transformation is a first for kind for them. So technology is one part, but it’s the change, it’s the culture change. To your point, Rene, things are changing and the economy is changing, demographics changing, and the way people want to engage. People have the same expectations of, if I engage with a charity, it should be the same as if I were to engage with a retailer or a utilities company. It shouldn’t be any different, the experience I have. And so I think for me, some of the challenges are really around how do you ensure your culture enables the charity to be the best it can be alongside other technical transformation as well.

Sarah Rigby: So, yeah, going back to the trust piece, I think people who are donating money to charities, they want to understand where is that pound or that 10 pounds going, how can I trust the charity is spending it in the right way. So I’m interested, Rene, to get your view on how do charities ensure they’re transparent with what they’re doing and it helps to build that trust with their beneficiaries to ensure that everything they are doing is moving them towards that north star.

The importance of knowing your end game and setting goals to work towards it

Rene Olivieri: I’m wrestling with this, and the reason I tell you I’m wrestling with this is because most of the causes that we care about, most of the destinations we’ve outlined for ourselves, they’re very ambitious. So we’re not gonna eliminate domestic abuse or child poverty or turn the climate change dial back, probably even in our lifetime. So it’s a long journey. And of course, you have to focus on the ultimate destination that north star and map it out accordingly. You have to know what your end game is, and the end game is usually for most organisations, wildly ambitious. It’s very easy if you present that to people and say, please, could you help us as volunteers or members or with your donations now to achieve that goal? For them to say, it’s not gonna happen immediately. It’s not gonna happen. I think you need to set shorter-term goals. That’s why there is a change, impact measures. People say this is how much we did last year. This is how much we’ve done this year. This is the evidence that’s quite important for people.

Rene Olivieri: But you mustn’t forget the kind of emotional commitment you’re making long-term to that long-term journey and marrying the two up depends again on people trusting you, you win their trust by showing short-term. Look, we said we were gonna do this. This is what we’re doing now, but our longer-term goal is to go there. And if they have confidence that you are meeting your shorter and medium-term goals, and you’re communicating with them in a way that they feel is transparent and honest, that you’re really telling them the truth, they’ll stay with you for that longer journey. They’ll give you resources and their donations and their support for that longer journey provided they see you making progress. And I think that’s really important. It’s very important too that you and others who are coming at it, perhaps to the same north star from a different direction, are supporting each other being positive, and people can see that you are not just hoeing your own row of vegetables, that actually you can see the whole vegetable patch and yours working alongside others and it’s complimentary.

Rene Olivieri: I’m a great believer in complementarity that you do one thing, it enhances the value of another. You and this organisation are working on one thing. It enhances the work that maybe another organisation is doing and helps you both to move faster towards that longer-term goal. 

Sarah Rigby: Yeah, and I think breaking it down so it’s actually manageable into those small steps and just actually pausing to say we are not at the north star start yet, but we are way better than we were six months ago, a year ago. And you’ve got, to your point, that impact reporting as well. So what does good look like for us? What are our measures of success and how can we tell that we are turning the dials in the right way? We might not be at the end point yet, but actually we’re all in that. And to your point, that helps ensure the trust is there as well.

The difference working together and positivity can make 

Rene Olivieri: And optimism is so important and being positive. When I think about what’s happening in the natural world, it’s very easy to get depressed. We’re basically going up an escalator the wrong way. But we know what we need to do. I mean, that’s one of the things because of science, because of experience, most of these organisations know what actions need to be taken. They need help from people like you to kind of have a methodology, turn that into an action plan and to measure what they’re doing and to experiment and find out what things are working better, what things are working less well in order to become more effective, to allocate their resources in the appropriate way. But we kind of know what we need to do to solve these problems. And so telling people that they’re big problems, they’re urgent problems, we need to get at it, but we know where the solutions are and we are really resourceful as a species. If we worked together, we could do something about it. 

Rene Olivieri: I’ll give you an example. In the 1850s, there was a huge sewage problem in London and the Victorians, they were positive and you know, they created some problems that we’ve inherited, but they were certainly positive in engineering terms with, a big engineering project. They solved the sewage problems that were really just overrunning London at the time. This was called The Big Stink, and Melvin Bragg talked about that recently or done a program recently on BBC on this, and it was just the kind of positive can-do attitude, which really is important for us to get people behind and realise that it isn’t just about me. It isn’t just about us and our time, it’s about the future. We do care about the future. A lot of us will be here in the future. The average person is in their mid-forties. They’re gonna live another 40, 50 years. They’ll see that future. They’ll see the effects of climate change. They’ll see the effects of industrial agriculture if it continues to expand. So, you know, you wanna create a better world for your children, but a better world for your future self as well.

Things don’t always go to plan – what should you do about it?

Ed Kemp Sloan: I really like the idea that you talked to earlier around how do you have the most effect with the resources that you have. And I think what we see with some organisations is they set a strategy, and then in attempting to follow it, they can sometimes not maybe have the effect that they want to have because again, the world changes, things move on, new insights come in, new technology comes in. And so I guess, what are the key moments for you in which you might pivot your course and change direction to have more benefit with the money or resources that you’ve got? 

Rene Olivieri: Innovation and change is almost the most interesting and most difficult problem for every organisation, and this goes for business as well, but we’ve learned a lot in recent years about it.

Rene Olivieri: And I’m a great believer in the scientific method, and you have to be really honest with yourself about it because we all have our pet ideas and we want them to work so much. But what you do is you have a hypothesis. This is what a scientist would do. You say, I think X would work, or I think the world works in this way. And then you find out which assumption is most critical for that to be true. And that’s the one you test first and you actually kind of try to prove it wrong. You try to prove that you are wrong. If you get past that first step, then what’s the other assumption that has to be true for this? And it sounds like you might be spending money in failing and that’s exactly what you’re doing, but you’re reducing your uncertainty, you’re gaining knowledge about what could work and instead of launching a program in the hopes that it’ll work, and then getting more and more nervous as it seems to not have any traction, you try lots of little things out until you find the thing that actually turns the dial that changes public opinion or saves that habitat. Or helps families most. And then you begin to build on that and think about how you’re gonna scale it up. And we need to not be afraid in the sector. Failure is the way that we all learn, you know, from childhood. So using the scientific method of having a hypothesis, testing it out there. Cheaply failing quickly, as they say, learning from it. Moving on, I mean, I know that your organisation really believes in this methodology as well, but you need discipline because it’s so easy to convince yourself that the data is telling you what you want it to tell you, and instead, you have to be pretty objective as scientists, and sometimes you need external advisors to help you say I’m sorry, I know that’s what you’d like to believe, I know you’d like to believe that everybody will pay 50% more to have an RSPCA assured chicken, but that’s not what your customers are really telling you if you ask them closely. So it’s that kind of hard reality test that will make sure that we’re all the time improving the way in which we work, and I’m a great believer in the idea that it’s not enough to just say, I’m in this organisation and I do good. We have an obligation to do the most good we can, and that means continuous improvement, continuing experimentation, continually learning from our failures and building on our successes.

Data importance and challenges

Ed Kemp Sloan: So I think again, with some of the organisations that we’ve seen, particularly from an impact reporting perspective, we see some really interesting things coming up. Now recently, I’ve got kind of quite excited about what that future might look like of how we can use data to better prove and disprove hypotheses to the, you know, then say what you should do next with your future. But again, I think you can start with the data that says, and again, from a scientific perspective, it shows X or Y, but then you always need to look at it with a human lens of well, what does that really mean? What does that picture tell us? How would you link in this data with some other data, with some further insight and then start to build that story? And I know I think we talked previously, I think Rene in other conversations about storytelling and how data can be used to support that. And also, again, to build trust in organisations about where we’ve come from, how we’ve come with this idea, what we want to do next, that optimism, inspirational thing of where we want to go. And yeah, we’ve seen several organisations recently that we’ve been supporting who are trying to understand all of their data and what that really means for them, are they having the impact against the purpose that they said. And interestingly, we’re seeing this again, not just with not-for-profits who really do want to show that kind of trust and transparency, but also now bigger for-profit organisations and we’re working with one at the moment where, you know, they have lots of different insights from across their organisation, all doing really, really good things, but they’re not quite sure how that all comes together and the impact that they’re really having. So I just think there’s such an important and prevalent topic at the moment and something that I think us as a consultancy and all these organisations are still working through really kind of what the outcome of that is and how it will all come together.

Rene Olivieri: What I think is really old-fashioned, you know the Soviet Union used to have their five-year plans and they were five-year plans, and you stick to it and then at the end of it you realise maybe you didn’t really achieve that, or you invent figures to make believe that you did realise your five-year plan. The idea that we should do a five-year, 10-year, or 15-year strategy and then stick to it, doggedly, because that’s the strategy and we won’t achieve anything if people vary from that strategy, ignores the fact that we have this steady feedback from people in terms of what they want, what they don’t want, what they like, what they don’t like, how they’re feeling about things, but also hard data about what they’re buying, how they’re behaving. We need to use that data and figure that all strategy is emergent. You’re north star what you’re trying to achieve, the difference in society you wanna make, that remains the same. But there’s nothing wrong with saying your theory of change, your strategy is always emergent and always being adjusted on the base of that. In fact, It’s irresponsible to continue on a course when you know, actually, the data’s telling us that we’re just slightly off course. We need to steer a bit more to the left, or we need to change this, or this particular intervention is not working. So it’s really important to have long-term goals and a long-term vision, but you need to steer by what you’re finding on the moment, really. And it’s hard for people sometimes to accept that, particularly as they’re all worried, it becomes an excuse for not doing what you said you were gonna do. But if you consciously make the effort and you say, okay, the goals have shifted, the targets have shifted because actually, we’re getting information back that that’s not taking us to where we want to go.

Rene Olivieri: I think that’s really important and people like you can help build those systems so that it becomes something people are comfortable with to make those adjustments on the fly and to be agile, which I’m sure is what we need to do in this rapidly evolving world. 

An innovative mindset is imperative in this evolving world

Sarah Rigby: Yeah, and I think going back to a point you mentioned earlier, Rene, in terms of asking people what they want, it all links back to actually, why do you exist as an organisation?

Sarah Rigby: You know, it is your volunteers, your donors, your members, your beneficiaries. That’s why you are existing as an organisation, and their needs are always evolving and they’re emerging every day really. So if you are not prepared to be flexible and agile and innovate, then being able to survive as a charity or for a for-profit organisation as well, it’s just unrealistic. So having that innovative mindset and being able to accept you need to fail to be able to progress is, really important. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: Yeah. And I think if we look back over the last sort of four or five years when we’ve had covid and that changed everything in terms of how not-for-profits are fundraising and how they operate. And now we have the cost of living crisis and how that is then changing again, the landscape. And I think any strategy you put in front of a board and it gets approved and then you, go okay, here’s my 10-year strategy, within two years, the way that the world is going at the moment, that’s changed already so I completely agree. Set the north star, set a strategy by all means, but know that that strategy is true at the point of time it was written, but within six months, you want to start adapting that to see kind of what comes next. 

Rene Olivieri: And of course the other thing is technology change. You get more and more data. I mean, I’m working in a heritage organisation. One of the things I’ve realised recently is humans have been around for 350,000 years, maybe 500,000 years. We’ve had written records for 6,000 years, and now we’re flush with all kinds of information. And the information is getting greater all the time. It’s visual information, it’s numerical information, it’s written information, it’s gonna be 3D in information. And we need to use those tools to shape our world. We have just so much more data to rely on to understand our environment, and we need to make use of it. 

What is on the horizon for the non-profit sector?

Ed Kemp Sloan: I’ve got one final question for you, Rene, before we wrap up. Just thinking ahead to the next couple of years for the non-profit sector, what do you think is on the horizon for all of these organisations going through all this change at the moment? What do you think the future looks like for that sector? 

Rene Olivieri: It’s hard for me to talk across all of the third sector, but when I look ahead, I think to know what your key assets are, have clarity about your purpose, care about your people, protect your trust and goodwill ’cause whatever you think your most important asset is, your most important asset is the goodwill that people need to vote for a government, they need to buy products. They do not need to give you money. They do not need to give you your support. Ask yourself always, why should they? Why should they care? And also, keep redefining what your public benefit is. Think about what your public benefit is. You may find that your public benefit is broader than you originally realised. Make sure you’re making others aware of that. Make sure, if you can, trying to quantify that and make that part of your target, if it fits in with the direction you want to go for your north star, or those are gonna see much more collaboration, particularly now with the technology, cost of marketing and stuff. More organisations out there need to link arms and join together. You know, some people would say, we have too many, it’s great to have all this local activism, but there are just economies of scale. And I’m a believer that you do need to overcome those by either buying in resources, collective buying, or working more collaboratively with other organisations. And I guess the most important thing is going back to this notion of trust that we started off with. You need to keep that trust. It’s too easy. We live in a sceptical world. We live in a world of fake news, fake information. Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into rhetorical traps or rhetorical battles. You’re there to make an impact. So stick to that and think, am I making an impact? Am I getting distracted by noise around me? Am I actually in danger of undermining the trust that people have in my organisation and our purpose? So those are the things – stick to the knitting really, I guess is what I’m saying. But actually see it in that larger context and who you should be working with that maybe you haven’t really seen, maybe possibly have even seen as a competitor in the past, but actually as an ally in disguise. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: Yeah. Thank you very much for all of that insight. Rene. I think it’s really great to hear some of your experience from the sector and again, just thank you so much for coming in to speak to Sarah and I today. We’ve had a great time catching up. Great to see you again. 

Ed Kemp Sloan: We have a number of other episodes coming up in the not-for-profit podcast series over the next few months, so please keep an eye out for them and engage with any of the content that we share. It’d be great to hear from your insights as well. So thank you very much everyone, and we’ll speak to you soon. 

Rene Olivieri: Thank you, 

Sarah Rigby: Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to Knowing not-for-profits. We hope you enjoyed it and look forward to welcoming you back on our next episode. If you have a topic that you would like covered on the show or want more information on the topics discussed, please drop us an email at We’d love to hear from you.

We help a variety of non-profit organisations tackle some of their toughest challenges. If you need support check out our Not for profit consultancy services and please contact us for more information.  This is episode 1 of our new podcast series Knowing not-for-profits. Further series details can be found here

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