Lessons from Save the Children

Justin Forsyth

In an engaging and powerful talk on Tuesday at the RSA out-going Save the Children Chief Executive Justin Forsyth shared five lessons he says he has learned in his time at the charity.

1. Build powerful platforms not powerful organisations. Charities can no longer do everything alone and teaming up with other charities to build platforms is now essential. He gave the example of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy which describes itself like this: “We will work together across the humanitarian sector to ensure that information, knowledge, learning and resources are shared to make us all more efficient in this time of growing pressure.”

2. Unexpected allies are more powerful than usual suspects. He cites the unlikely alliance of Bono and President Bush in the very effective campaign to tackle the HIV crisis in the developing world.

3. It is as important to have an exceptional team as an exceptional idea. This, he says, is “very important for sustaining good work.” Charities, in particular, he says, “can forget to focus internally”. This was especially critical for building sustainability, he said.

4. The power of the mass rather than elite. The unexpected success of the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in 2005 was made possible because of the Live 8 movement which was going on at the same time, he believes. Engaging the power of the masses “gives us permission to be edgy”.

5. Who you are should determine what you do, not the other way round. This means charities should always be true to their founding principles, he says. “If you don’t you don’t look authentic and you weaken your mandate.”

Aside from these five insights, Forsyth also had more to say on a range of topics in response to questions. Here are a selection:

“The biggest weakness of any organisation is self-righteousness, and charities too prone to this.”

“There is real power in riding waves rather than planning campaigns. The modern media environment can change the conversation across the world.” Examples he cited were the outcry following a rape in Delhi and the seismic response to pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on a Turkish beach, both of which had dramatic political consequences.

There was a need to “move the debate on from the CEO’s salary and admin costs to measuring the real impact we have in the world.”

“Engagement gets left behind in the drive to raise money,” he said, and “fundraising can become industrialised”. He argues that charities haven’t changed the “very old fashioned” way they raise funds. He doesn’t believe the “market” is saturated. “We can raise much more if we engage better with people, particularly through the use of digital technologies.”

Forsyth takes up a new post of deputy executive director of UNICEF next month.