Empowerment is a good idea – for you too

I went to a meeting the other day where the aim was to try to decide a strategy to deal with a massive and unanticipated funding cut.

Most of us were sweating and making little whimpering noises. The funding in question was vital to enable a big funding package to be completed. We needed to make a bit of a fuss about this, and try to get a change of policy  –  or a lot of projects were done for.

Everything went well until Mr Message started his speech.  He was very good, he’d eaten all the right words and they were now exiting by the usual passage. This wasn’t a cut, it was an opportunity for increased efficiency. People weren’t going to find their lives harder to live, they were going to be empowered by the opportunity to make their own choices.

Yada yada. We tried to act tough but Mr Message was too happy in his little world for a few unhappy people to get through to him.  Maybe if we manage to find a Councillor who wants to make a bit of trouble we might get a rethink, but this is unlikely as most of the Councillors are Mr Messages themselves.

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to behave badly. Don’t aim for consensus with people you have absolutely no common ground with. A bit of push-back can work, and please don’t send Mr Message to a meeting where Mr Off-Message might work better. Have a bit of confidence in what you are doing, and don’t collude.


Failing memory

I keep telling people this, but they won’t believe me; it’s getting harder and harder for charitable Trusts and Foundations to give their money away. Why? Well, you can’t really give a grant to an organisation that hasn’t much hope of surviving long enough to spend it, and there are many more groups in this situation than there used to be.

There’s another problem too, more subtle but just as damaging. If a funding relationship is going to work, the funder needs to have someone they can “talk to” in the organisation that’s got their money.  Mostly this conversation is via forms of one sort or another, but even so for this to work for the funder there really does need to be a feeling that there’s somebody out there who has a clue what’s going on.  This is even more important when the funder you report to is an intermediary, and has to report themselves to some Big Bureaucrat who is trying to keep the Minister or the Commissioner happy –  and so it goes, in an unending round of reports and spreadsheets, targets and stresses.

The sector is shifting  –  indeed, has already shifted  –  to the employment model used in the private sector. People are employed short-term, they are very part-time with barely enough capacity to get the job done, let alone take the time to fill in some daft monitoring spreadsheet. They jump ship as soon as they can, to the next short-term job. And because core funds are at rock-bottom, there’s nobody around with the time to have a chat, take some notes, make some suggestions, capture some learning and some good news. There’s so little capacity left for thinking, for reviewing, and for remembering  –  sorry, we have to move on right now to the next project or we’re doomed.

Believe me, it’s getting more and more common to be told “a monitoring form?  Well, we probably had it but Sheena left a couple of weeks ago…. Yes, I know quite a few people were involved but I’m not sure…. Let me get back to you.  Who are you again? Oh, were you one of the funders? Well, that’s nice”.

It reminds me sometimes of one of Oliver Sacks case-studies of people with major brain-damage  –  “The organisation that forgot where their money was coming from” perhaps? Anyway, if you fail to know what’s happened and to give a good and accurate account of it to the people who paid for it, your name will soon be mud. However tight things get, however little time there is for management and supervision, you must find a way to record and remember what you have achieved. Get your Board more involved in supervision, find a keen under-30 who actually knows how all this computery stuff work and can make recording simpler , buy a good camera, get organised.

As my Mum would have said (and often did) “Make sure you write a nice thank-you letter straight after Christmas, and you’ll be sure to get a better present next time”.


Knit your own Progression

We need to make sure we are attracting young people into the sector who are good at what they do, and are really committed.  But for this to happen I think, for the Managers and Trustees of my generation, there are some underlying issues we need to be more aware of.

When we were young and idealistic, and our bones didn’t creak and pension plans were of absolutely no importance at all, we lived (if we had only known it!) in what now appears to have been a sort of Utopia. Living was relatively cheap, we were usually debt-free and we had the comforting feeling that there was a safety-net under us. Dentists were all NHS, our care needs would be met if we made it to old age, we could choose to buy our homes or to pay a relatively cheap rent, things would only get better  –  so why bother about a “career”? Only sad types with creases down the front of their jeans thought about anything like that.

But now, for the most part, the safety net has gone. I had a friend in my younger days who bought his house outright using the results of a particularly well-judged series of bets at Beverley racecourse  –  nowadays that wouldn’t even raise him a deposit.

So we need to think about our younger staff and volunteers differently.  They are people who live in a less secure world, and that means we need to work with them, to help them use the skills we can give them now as a way forward into a more secure future. Otherwise, stress and debt will send them into other sectors where they can see some kind of security, even if their hearts are pulling them another way .

But how to do this when you are a small local Charity with 1.5 paid workers and the one full-timer isn’t going to leave anytime soon? Maybe it will help if you see progression as happening within the Sector as a whole, not just within your organisation, and then just hope that what goes around comes around. The following are a few ideas.

  • Portfolio building  –  make sure staff and volunteers keep some kind of written record of any new skills and achievements.  It doesn’t need to be a folder full of certificates, perhaps just a well laid-out appraisal form?
  • Know where they want to go and help them get there  –  all too often, talented interviewees who let slip that they aren’t aiming to live and die in harness with your organisation are viewed with suspicion.  Appoint them, support them and then wave them goodbye with a glad heart.
  • Can you offer anything special to help them on their way to their ultimate goal  –  the chance to take part in a particular project or to meet up with a specialist?
  • Make new responsibilities overt  –  acknowledge when people have moved up a step (see below).
  • Job titles matter –  oh yes, they do!  If you have asked someone to work at Supervisor level, call them a Supervisor (even if it’s just a temporary “acting up” status). This will make a huge difference to their chances of making their way onwards and upwards.
  • Know where your past employees have ended up and advertise this. Demonstrate that a couple of years working for you is a good pathway to other opportunities.

And please, however stressed you are and however much extra work their giving notice leaves you with  –  let them leave positively.  Use their success as a way to attract the next motivated, energetic young person to your team, and be thankful that you began your career in a freer and more relaxed time.

Making money

When I was working for a big national Trust, I spent a lot of (very enjoyable) time visiting projects that were looking for funding. Of course, one of the main things I had to find out was an answer to the simple question  –  if we give you a grant, will you keep going for long enough to spend it?

Some groups had good unrestricted reserves.  Some (very few) had contracts running with their local authorities and were in a good position to renew. A couple were somewhere near the start of major Big Lottery funding.  One even had Samantha Cameron fundraising for them  –  well, if it works don’t knock it.

But an awful lot of them were more or less skint, doing the (metaphorical) scrabble down the back of the sofa, surviving on bits and bobs from small Trusts or just sitting and waiting for the funding axe to fall. And these were the visits I grew to dread, because even as I asked “well, how do you plan to meet your future funding shortfall?” I was braced for the worst possible answer.  Shining eyes would be lifted to mine as they shared their great idea, and I would have to try my best to show a) surprise and b) joy as I was told, yet again, “Oh it will be fine  –  we’re going to open a cafe!”. A cafe, down the wrong end of a cul-de-sac. In space they actually needed for their activities.  In a cold church hall with the ambience of a breezeblock. Staffed by untrained, unsupported, uninterested service-users. Well, I would write careful notes, smile and leave feeling very depressed indeed and thinking deep thoughts about false hope, and how much energy it wastes.

Until, one happy day…

The organisation and project were both good.  Their church-hall venue on a deprived high-street was a bit bashed about but there was an unmistakable buzz about the place. But we had to face the elephant in the room  –  a big shortfall in funding for the next financial year and a titchy reserve, most of which was needed as a close-down fund. There were some good ideas in their funding strategy, but as is usual nowadays they were going to have to do a helluva lot of work filling in forms just to get small driblets of cash, and the two women in front of me looked cheerful but very, very tired. And then……Oh no, the C Word!

“We’re also planning to start up a business, a Cafe”. “Are you?” I replied, with an almost hysterical cheerfulness. “I don’t suppose you have a business plan…..?”

Oh yes, they had a business plan.  They had cashflow.  They had a separate funding strategy for the new venture.They had found a couple of big Trusts who would be interested in funding employment training opportunities for their clients, funding that would help a lot with meeting core costs. They had done some market research  –  they knew the average footfall past the Hall. They had found a mentor with business experience, who was working with the sub-committee of Trustees who were leading on the plans. A local company wanted to help with doing-up the separate room (with separate entrance) that would be their venue. The service user Committee had come up with the original idea, and theyImage couldn’t wait to start training as Baristas.

I managed not to burst into tears of joy, but I tell you  –  it was close.

Try the Toolkit below for ideas if you are thinking about income generation. Making something like this work means detail, and this is a very good source of checklists!