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Tessy Ojo CBE kicks off CFG's Annual Conference 2020

Tessy Ojo CBE shares the three principles she believes will help the charity sector create a better future.

CFG's long-awaited Annual Conference: Creating a better future got off to a flying start today (Monday 7 December) with a warm welcome from CEO Caron Bradshaw and "proud" CFG trustee Avtar Boparai, Chair of the opening plenary.

Introducing Tessy Ojo CBE, CEO of The Diana Award, Avtar commented that it has been a challenging year, not only for the sector as a whole, but for people professionally and personally.

This challenge was one that Tessy and her team at The Diana Award met head-on. Sharing her approach to the lockdown with 342 delegates, Tessy explained that strong shared principles are the key to success and creating a better future.

Tessy revealed: "Today is my 24th wedding anniversary. When I reflect back on our life over the past 24 years, we knew we wanted to be married, but we didn’t know what the future held.

"But we faced the future with some underlying principles: we would support each other and make space for the service of others. We made a commitment that we would make time for each other, irrespective of how busy our lives got.

"No one knows what the future holds, but we must adopt guiding principles to help us navigate the future together."

Allowing people to thrive

When the lockdown was announced in March, like the rest of the country Tessy and her team faced new and unexpected fears. Tessy's three areas of immediate concern were the organisation's people, how to reach out to the young people the charity works with, and cash-flow.

"There is an African saying," said Tessy. "If you want to go fast you go alone, but if you want to go far you have to go in the company of others.

"We asked our people; ‘Are You okay?' 'What are you worried about?' 'And how can we help?' We began to understand the needs from those having to home-school, to those whose children had health risks or those with elderly family members. They told us and we began to work out solutions for each staff member."

Early results from the charity's recent staff survey show they got it right. No negative words were used when staff were asked to sum up the organisation and 100% of staff felt the organisation genuinely cared about them and the community.

"I share this because I know that in our sector, we can’t begin to talk about future-proofing our sector or creating a better future without prioritising our people."

A system where all can thrive

The young people the charity works with was the next big area of focus for Tessy. With most of the charity's activities taking place in schools, with contact with more than 500 young people each week, Tessy said they needed to find new ways to reach out and engage.

"We asked ourselves, how do we remain relevant to young people when our world was rapidly changing? How could we maintain connection?"

Tessy said that she knew immediately that the charity needed to "invest massively in digital" but that it wasn't just about moving everything they did online, but taking the opportunity to really understand what young people needed from the organisation.

"We needed to completely re-innovate our funding structure and become much more agile and, in some cases, more transactional," continued Tessy.

"We needed to be responding to needs and remaining relevant to young people. We asked them directly through surveys what it was they needed and thousands responded. We immediately pivoted."

By summer 2020, the charity was helping 14,000 young people through the power of technology. Because of constraints on finance, The Diana Award usually runs four live Awards Ceremonies events each year, but due to investment the charity was also able to extend its training, development and mentoring programmes online.

By the end of the summer, the charity was reaching out to more people in more places than ever before, with nearly 500 personal development sessions taking place each week.

Among the highlights was the charity's Awards when more than 1500 young people and their families attended for the first time - an incredible 3000 people in total.

Agility and disruption

Tessy went on to say that she believes the sector can only create a better future if it can move quickly and by innovating. "I was worried about finances over the summer and I started to think about how suddenly Uber transformed the entire taxi business. I was then reflecting on how having a time-share was once a popular thing to do and that Air BNB has now turned that model on its head."

These disruptive models are now being seen in the non-profit sector and Tessy cited GiveDirectly as one organisation that has taken a new approach.

The charity is the first that allows people to give cash to others directly. Their guiding belief is that 'people living in poverty deserve the dignity to choose for themselves how best to improve their lives — cash enables that choice.'

Tessy continued: "There has been a huge change in how people lead their lives. Digitisation has put people in control, cutting away the middle-man. I believe this is coming to our sector in the same way Uber and Air BNB have come to theirs."

Tessy concluded that the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of agility in responding to need, and that this relies on getting three core principles right:

  1. Our people must matter. We cannot focus on inequality and creating a better future together if we do not focus on our people. Charity must begin at home.
  1. Build sustainable and innovative funding models. We cannot do business as usual.
  1. Remain agile. We need a strategy and it must be well mapped out, but we must be agile and able to respond to changing circumstances and needs.


With sincere thanks to Tessy Ojo CBE for sharing these fascinating insights at this year's Annual Conference. And thanks to Avtar Boparai for chairing.

Thanks also to this year's sponsors and exhibitors: Grant Thornton, Oracle Netsuite, Sarasin & Partners and HSBC. Find out more here.

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