Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting back to basics

Sometimes when I am working with organisations I decide that there must be a return to basics. People are half-way through something but it is difficult to grasp what. This can be difficult if I am trying to mentor someone - to boost their confidence and show them new skills. I agonise for a long time over how I should address this but in the end these things have to be done. And in the main people appreciate my honesty and can see what I am getting at.

So what do I mean by this? I have been helping with a business plan for a charity. The first draft was put together by two people who had never done a business plan for a charity before although they had both extensive experience of business planning.

In the form it was in the first draft didn't really capture what the organisation was doing and why. It was based to some extent on a previous plan when the focus was on building a new organisation, this new plan was about keeping the organisation going. I started by talking through what needed to be in this new business plan and why. Their first attempt at this reworked format was OK but it had a lot of lists and description about what was currently happening but not why this was happening or what needed to happen in the future. 

There was quite a tight deadline for the work so I thought it would be better to re-write rather than just to offer pointers for how to improve it. Those writing the business plan were delighted as they could see that it now read better and that I hadn't in any sense removed their work just repackaged it (and put some in as appendices). 

I am still helping with the action plan to make it easy to understand but once this is done I suspect that in the years to come they will be able to do this themselves. Whilst most of us want to enable and encourage people to do things for themselves sometimes the best learning comes from going back to basics rather than rejigging what you have. Both the people had ideas in their heads about what a business plan should look like from their previous work, but neither models worked for this organisation. I think that I had actually do a lot of it myself and by doing it show them how it was done. This is the way that many people used to be trained and was affectionately known as 'sitting next to Nellie'. 

In another situation I am working with someone who lives in a rural location, owns a house and surrounding land and runs a charity on the land. The charity rents some of the land and has animals on the owner's land. After the first meeting I thought that I was clear about what the issues were but on returning I realised that the two parts of the person's life - her family life and her work life were entangled. So it was no wonder that life got a bit confused and at times complicated. I decided to go back to the beginning - who owns what, who pays for what, who rents what etc. My work is supposed to be tightly time-limited so the drive is always to jump in and get on with things but sometimes we need to ask ourselves, 'Do I really understand this situation enough so that I can be of help?' I am convinced that whether I can help this organisation or not, I will be in a better position having sketched out the basics or who owns what and who pays for what.

Another example is with our chapel and its proposed building works. I have not been involved in the early stages of the small group discussions but was asked to help with fundraising. I began to feel out of my depth. Many of the issues were about planning issues and listed buildings. I know the Conservation Officer at the Borough Council so went to talk to her. It was so useful to be able to understand what needed doing for each piece of the work. I then wrote this out for my own benefit and for others in the congregation so that we could agree what was needed. My understanding of the legal issues may be wrong but at least I have written them down so that people can see what I think. Often we ignore the significance of writing things down not as an end in itself but to focus the mind on what each of us is thinking.

And the last example was yesterday. An organisation that I volunteer with is having an issue with the local planning office. The head of planning came out to speak with us. All my questions were about getting to the basics. He said that they had concerns - I asked what those concerns were. He said that we were in breach of our planning consent - I had read this consent several times and still not understood it - so asked what our planning consent actually said (he did not know but is going to find out); and he said that we needed to take a certain course of action - I asked him to detail how we would do that. There was one person getting quite upset at how we had been treated (which was not great) and the head of planning needed to know that - but to move forward we needed to know the basics - what do we have to do, why do we have to do this, what will they do and what will the implications be.

It is quite interesting for any organisation to go back to basics and ask things like - why do we exist, what values do we have, how do we realise our values and how do we plan for our future? Organisational drift is a well-understood concept in the voluntary sector and happens usually for the best of reasons - people are busy doing. But sometimes we do need to stop doing and start thinking about what we do and why.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A bit of a conversation on someone else's blog brought the idea of scrutiny to the fore. Everything that we do in terms of governance needs some degree of scrutiny but what exactly does this mean. It means that no one person should be making significant decisions e.g. taking on staff, signing a contract or spending money, without others having a look at the decision and satisfying themselves that the decision is sound. Some charities have very clear guidelines about what trustees, staff and volunteers can and cannot do without authorisation from a higher power: many don't.

But what if the board has made a decision, what scrutiny does this need? In the first instance the board themselves need to be confident that they have scrutinised the decision that they have made. If you are going to commit resources (time and money) to something you need to be confident that someone somewhere has done the thinking. Of course this can be difficult with a new project.

I volunteered to write a business plan for a charity shop within a local Community Centre. The person with the responsibility for doing this was overwhelmed with other work. I find business plans fairly easy so said that I would have a go. For a new venture it is quite difficult, despite there being quite a bit of information about how to start a charity shop. After mulling it over for several weeks I decided that a three phase business plan would work best.

The first phase was about whether it appeared feasible. So that we didn't have to do loads of work without a sense of whether we had the basics in place, I worked on identifying what those things were. So was there enough space; did we have enough volunteers; did we have volunteers with the right experience; how would the money be handled; how would we get the goods to sell; and what would the set up costs be. I then raised some issues under each item to engage the board (I am not on the board) in debate. With this the trustees could see that it was on the surface feasible and would add some value to the Centre as well as raising money. The next phase is to look in detail at what needs doing, who will do those things, who will manage the process and how we will plan the implementation. I have stalled at the moment because I have been away and am busy for the next couple of weeks. But when phase two is finally complete we hope to have a good picture of what it is that we will have to do to set the shop up and what resources we will need. The trustees may still decide that it is too difficult or just too costly - but that is their prerogative. If they agree that it is a goer then the implementation plan is the third stage. 

This sort of process is what I would call adequate scrutiny from the Board of Trustees. Without these stages they would be agreeing to commit the charity's resources to something which was merely an idea in the minds of a few of us. And those people are the ones wedded to the idea so would be happy not to look for evidence that it might not work - but we have to and the Board of Trustees has to. Within stage two there will be an options appraisal - different opening hours; different staffing structures; and the types of goods on sale.  There will also be a risk analysis - what if we can't get the volunteers; what if no-one will or can do the management of the project; what if we can't get things to sell; what if we get too much stuff to sell etc.

For Boards of Trustees planning to invest money in something, each trustee needs to be convinced that the investment will bring some benefit and preferably a benefit at least as big as doing something else with the investment. This needs evidence or at least a well-argued case. Nothing beats a written project plan - there's then no arguing about who said what or what each person heard about particular issues. If we were investing our own money in something we would need quite a bit of convincing that whatever we invested our money in would bring us the results expected and hoped for. When we are dealing with charity resources we need to be as vigilant in spending money as we would for ourselves and then some.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How we make decisions

I have just had an email exchange with someone claiming that by not formally voting in a chair and a secretary at a new group meeting (although as there was only one candidate for each role so we nodded it through) was unconstitutional. I pointed out that as we didn't have a constitution (we're an ad hoc working group made up of people from two organisations) that whatever we did could not be termed unconstitutional.

We all know people who are wedded to their rule books, who want to see the i's dotted and the t's crossed. and we should be grateful for them. They highlight an important aspect of working within organisations. What people like my colleague do is remind us that we need to at least have some semblance of structure when we are working together within any organisation. In this instance I suggested that she write a terms of reference which outlined how we made decisions. To date she has not picked up on this.

We cannot assume that all decisions are going to be made the same way in every organisation that we are a member of. Voting in an open meeting may not be appropriate nor may the assumption  that the majority will carry it. Sometimes voting can be divisive. Sometimes people do not want to be seen to cast their vote. Sometimes things are so important that a simple majority just will not do. Most of us only think about how we make decisions when we are faced with one that is contentious.

We had this situation locally a few years back when another religious group wanted to hire our building. Their views in many ways were contrary to ours and some felt that it was inappropriate. Others felt that as long as they were not preaching hate or violence that we should reach out and offer our building. It got very testy and in the end we had a secret ballot but not until we had debated the issue very fully. In the end we did rent our building, they came a couple of times and then their own internal strifes overtook them and they disappeared. What it left us with was a feeling that we needed to know how decisions were made - not just the end bit - but the process leading up to that.

We have carried this forward with our discussions about our building. We could have taken a straight vote a year or two back. Instead we decided that we needed to debate the issue until the majority of people could see the vision of the reconfiguration of the space and the outcome that it would make the building more accessible.

Going back to my procedure-loving colleague, I think that it is worth trying to marry some people's desire for structure and accountability with others' priorities of getting the job done. As with all organisational issues it is a matter of balance and accommodating diverse approaches to make a meaningful and respectful whole.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Charities Act 2011

The Charities Act 2011 has now been enacted.  It doesn't change anything - it 

'...repeals and replaces the Recreational Charities Act 1958, the Charities Act 1993 and many of the provisions of the Charities Act 2006.' 

There is no change in how charities will be governed and managed but all references to charity law should now be to this act. The Charity Commission says this

'It simply consolidates existing legislation and so does not affect the legal basis of the Commission's guidance in any way.

This move will certainly make it a bit easier to understand charity law. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Collective responsibility

I was a social worker, social care manager and social care planner for some 13 years and then worked for a district council. I did a lot of partnership working and was used to people having a go at me because of some decision or other. I understood the frustration that many people felt when they thought that they should have got more.  I also understood how social services workers and managers had to make choices about the use of resources. With the best will in the world we could not provide everything that everyone wanted. Most times it was not my decision but whatever I thought I felt the need to represent the department. 

This was not about giving the party line but about discussing with people the difficult decisions that social services faced every day. I saw a marked change in my time at all levels from local to national working, where the honesty of debate enhanced working relationships between all sectors. It will never be perfect but it is so much better than regarding each other with suspicion and distrust. There is then the step further after discussion which is seeing if things can indeed be improved.  Where I saw that there was a real problem which could be solved I would take that back to the department to see if anything could be changed.

As trustees of charities we represent our organisations to the outside world. We have a greater responsibility than an individual worker or manager for the workings of the organisation because we are the ones who set the framework for what is done. We are the leaders not the followers. If we are unhappy with the organisation then we have to work with fellow trustees (and staff if there are any) to change the organisation. Difficulties arise when we wear several hats - in Unitarian circles we may be a trustee of a local congregation, a district, a society and/or the (national) General Assembly - and sometimes we want to make comments just as  us as individuals without having to think about wearing any other kind of hat.

This blog represents what I think, it does not represent what my local community thinks. But how can we be sure that people understand which hat (or none) we are wearing? To some extent it has to be the context and to some extent it has to be explicit. The difficulties arise when we are being contentious and/or when we are criticising organisations of which we are trustees. In the former instance we need to ensure that we do not cast a bad light upon any organisation we are a trustee of by being publicly contentious. We need to be sure that we make it clear who we are speaking on behalf of, usually ourselves. In some circumstances it would do well to pass any public statements we are going to make to fellow trustees for information and comment even if we ourselves are clear that we are speaking personally.

If we are going to be overtly critical of organisations of which we are trustees then we need to take extreme care. First we are criticising ourselves - as trustees we take collective responsibility for the whole organisation. Second we may be setting ourselves apart from the organisation - saying that someone else is in control. Third we may be making public those things which are not in the public domain. And fourth if we are not criticising ourselves then it is likely that we are criticising others - people we have to work with, people we are leading and people who we have a role to protect. It is one thing to address organisational difficulties internally and quite another to do it publicly.

There are of course situations when there has been a significant debate and we do not agree with the majority decision - in this instance we may write a minority report or be clear with our fellow trustees that we cannot keep quiet. Perhaps there will be a discussion with other trustees about how this will be handled. At the end of the day all trustees must be focused on what is best for the organisation and outright war usually isn't the best approach.

It can be very easy to think that we are wearing a different hat or just discussing issues from a personal point of view but ... and this is an important but ... we must be considered in what we say, supportive of our colleagues and if we think there is an issue then raise it internally first, not to the world at large. As a trustee our collective responsibility is always there, we cannot switch it on and off. And then we must ask how we may solve any problems. If we are focused on the best interests of our organisation then we must take steps to address those problems with our fellow trustees and staff.

Being part of any organisation, in whatever role, can and does limit our freedom to say what we think. However it does this for the greater good - for the health of the organisation - to ensure that everyone else in the organisation can trust us and we can trust everyone else in the organisation - to enable the organisation to speak with one voice. In our relatively small Unitarian community we need to be mindful that we make it  clear in what capacity we are speaking.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Effective Governance

It is sometimes difficult to understand how we are supposed to relate to our Executive Committee (EC) (of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches ) (GA). 

I have been involved in a commission, panels, have voluntarily co-produced both the Associate Members newsletter and the Annual Report Summary. I have been involved in planning the Annual Meetings and I have led sessions at the annual Meetings. I did give a significant amount each month until I realised that the EC was not supportive of my work on the Funding Development Panel so took my financial support elsewhere. I have also stood for election to the EC and was unsuccessful. To my mind I have shown my commitment.

But when I dare to criticise I get one of two responses either silence or a comment that I am being negative.  At no point have I ever had a rational debate with any member of the EC about my concerns. It's a rum do when our freedom, reason and tolerance are not enshrined in the EC's commitment to rational debate over real concerns.

The Charity Commission identifies six key principles for good governance. The last of these is being open and accountable. It says this

An effective board will provide good governance and leadership by being open and accountable.  The Board will lead the organisation in being open and accountable, both internally and externally. This will include:

  • open communications, informing people about the organisation and its work;
  • appropriate consultation on significant changes to the organisation’s services or policies
  • listening and responding to the views of supporters, funders, beneficiaries, service users and others with an interest in the organisation’s work;
  • handling complaints constructively and effectively; and
  • considering the organisation’s responsibilities to the wider community, for example its environmental impact.
If you don't know how to relate to an organisation, a group of people or an individuial it is even more difficult to understand how their behaviour might be changed.