In the Spotlight: Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis

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Joanna Thornton, a Partner in our Not for Profit Practice, interviews Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, as part of our series on pioneering leadership, exploring the changes in leadership style and identifying what factors make an outstanding leader in today’s society.

Can you give an overview of your career path to date?

The first half of my career to date was spent working in a variety of senior HR roles in the private sector. I started my career as a Personnel Officer leading on employee relations for a telecoms manufacturing company. I eventually became Group HR Director for an international technology company, fostering a culture of innovation and leading in a sector where there was a genuine ‘war for talent’ – recruiting in 20 countries in order to attract and hire the people we needed to drive value for clients. My interest in how organisations work for customers and colleagues was developed over this time and I saw some amazing innovation in the organisations I worked in, coupled with difficult HR issues relating to periods of transformation and change. I saw both the best and worst of industry during my time in the commercial sector, learnt a lot and eventually became one of the Vice Presidents of the CIPD. 

During this period, I was spending an increasing amount of my spare time on issues that mattered to me. I was Chair of my local Greenpeace campaigning group and took on Board roles in charities and social enterprises working with lone parents trying to get back into the labour market, people with autism, and people with mental health issues and learning difficulties who needed access to independent advocacy. I eventually came to the conclusion that I wanted to spend my working days making a difference in the charity sector, rather than doing so on a voluntary basis. I therefore made a conscious decision to transfer sectors. Following a brief period in local government, I became HR Director and then Chief Executive at Scope, where I spent 5 years. I then moved to the NHS for a short time before becoming Chief Operating Officer for Unicef UK. I joined Crisis as Chief Executive, where I have spent the last 5 years. The three charities I have worked in have been very different, but the ultimate goal - to lead organisations to enable them to deliver for their beneficiaries – has been the same and is one that really motivates me.

What has been your career-defining moment so far?

There have been 2 career defining moments for me in the charity sector. The first was ensuring the Scope became financially and culturally viable, having taken on the Chief Executive role at an incredibly challenging time. Scope had made a loss of £9.5 million in the year before I became Chief Executive and was at great risk of failing. As a leadership team, we needed to ask ourselves 2 fundamental questions: how do we turn this situation around and why? Survival was an active choice at this time.  In reality there were other things we could have done, such as transferring services elsewhere to safeguard service provision, but ultimately we believed that what we were doing was really important for disabled people and that Scope as a values-led organisation had an important role to play.  By the time I left, the organisation was starting to thrive again. The second key achievement in my career has been during my time at Crisis.  I was asked to chair the Scottish government’s homelessness and rough sleeping action group which led to the Scottish government’s commitment to a plan to end homelessness. This is a major step forward and one that we are hopeful will be emulated elsewhere. More generally during my time at Crisis, we have successfully attracted the public’s, grown our voluntary income substantially, and made huge progress as a service provider and campaigning organisation which are all achievements that I am hugely proud of.

Tell me about your key priorities as CEO of Crisis?

Crisis has a clear goal to end homelessness. I have three priorities:

  • Individuals. We deliver services for thousands of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.  My colleagues work tirelessly day in and day out to deliver for the individuals who need us the most.  Our goal is to support people to end their homelessness for good.
  • Our national work. We are determined to end homelessness nationally by influencing government policy.  Our campaigning, research and partnership work with other organisations are undertaken to ensure that national governments make ending homelessness a priority.
  • Locally. While we need national governments to act at a policy level we also work to end homelessness locally through our place-based programmes and therefore we use our 11 centres to play an important role in helping local authorities and local networks to tackle homelessness. We are, for example, very proud of our partnership with Newcastle City Council who have committed to ending homelessness in Newcastle in 10 years with our support.

What does placing the service user at the centre mean for leadership at Crisis?

This is incredibly important. We have a range of initiatives in place to ensure that people with lived experience of homelessness have a voice across the organisation. Our member ambassadors play a vital role in speaking to our supporter groups.  We have an experts by experience panel, which is drawn from our members across the country. This panel played an active role in helping develop our strategy. Every Skylight service has a member forum and 1 member of the trustee Board was appointed primarily for her experience of homelessness and as a Crisis member ambassador.  Members form part of the interview panel for senior appointments. We have lots of initiatives in place but there is always the scope to do more and this is a priority cross cutting theme in our strategic plan.

As CEO, what have you learned about working in partnership with the Board during a time of change?

The role of trustees has been incredibly important in all the charities I have worked in.  At Crisis there is an ambition and rate of growth that has not been seen in the organisation previously.  I have really valued the role of trustees to both encourage that ambition and to test it; i.e. helping us to be certain of whether we can be even more ambitious, or when we should be more cautious.  As a charity funded almost wholly by the generosity of the public, we need to set our own standards and governance structures rather than following those set by commissioners. The Board plays a key role in holding the leadership team to account and ensuring effective stewardship if the funds provided by our supporters.

At Scope, a strong relationship with Alice Maynard as Chair and the rest of the Board was tremendously important during a time of great change and challenge. When the relationships work well it is possible to manage both turnaround and growth situations effectively. When they don’t, both of these become much more difficult to achieve and sustain. 

What is the single biggest challenge facing leaders in the not for profit sector in the next 5 years?

The not for profit sector is a large and varied sector so I will confine my answer to the section of it which working to drive social change. It is a frustrating time for charities involved in poverty, inequality or destitution as so rarely are these issues seen as a priority. Homelessness has grown as a result of policy decisions over many years, so for many charities the issue they are working on is getting worse while funding from statutory and public sources has stagnated. This places huge pressure on charity leaders to have a greater impact while working hard to raise the necessary funds to achieve this. We must therefore have a mature conversation with the public about the reality of what is happening, what the causes are and how the work of our charities is going to make a difference. 

Charities are not always trusted as much as they used to be and are subject to greater scrutiny. The sector must ensure that it is absolutely trustworthy and make the most of every penny that is donated. The sector also needs to be clear and honest about the causes of and solutions to the issues it is seeking to address. We must be bold on behalf of the people we are serving; the beneficiaries of our charities.

How ‘future ready’ do you think that charities are?

In my view, we need to become more future ready in 2 important ways:

  • Ensuring we have relationships with our supporters which match the way that people want to support causes now and in the future. Younger supporters do not necessarily want to engage with the charities of their choice by simply signing up to direct debits, but want a much greater level of engagement. If larger charities do not offer that they will seek this level of engagement elsewhere in more entrepreneurial and innovative settings.
  • We need to be more digitally focussed. The commercial sector spends a far greater proportion of its advertising spend online than the charities do. The not for profit sector needs to adapt to the ways that people receive information, interact with each other and organisations, and express their support, energy and funding.

What do we need to do to grow new leaders in the sector?

Organisations at the larger end of the not for profit sector have a responsibility to grow leaders, not just to fulfil their own needs but to help shape the sector as a whole. ACEVO and NCVO both have important roles to play here given their ability to look across the entire sector. I really enjoy being a mentor for the ACEVO mentoring scheme which pairs leaders up with others in the sector.  We need to attract people early enough in their careers and make them consider the charity sector actively as an attractive career move. Finally, given how careful private sector companies are to articulate their values to attract candidates, the not for profit sector which is so values-driven must be able to do so too. While our absolute focus is on our beneficiaries, we need to ensure we are inclusive and an exciting and fulfilling career choice.

Please give a perspective on how organisations increasingly need to ensure leadership represents the communities they serve?

This is so important. One of the fundamental issues when I joined Scope was a lack of engagement with disabled people. Only 3% of staff declared that they were disabled people, which rose to 20% by the time I left.  At Crisis, our staff team is diverse but like many other charities becomes less so as you look at the most senior levels of the organisation. We have work to do here and are committed to doing it. We have staff networks across the organisations which represent people with lived experience of homelessness, women, BAME staff, LGBTQ+ staff, and disabled people. Each group has adopted a member of the SMT to champion their group. Recruiting a trustee with lived experience of homelessness was of fundamental important and we are seeing real benefits of doing so. We have much further to go to being the inclusive, attractive and diverse organisation we need to be, and we’re committed to doing more.