Monday, December 5, 2011

The General Assembly

Not sure where this post goes but it is something that I have been musing and I think it fits best under governance.  Recently postings on the UK Unitarians Facebook group have provoked my thoughts. There have been some describing the General Assembly (GA) as the national centre and about the GA trustees (EC) wanting to influence congregations.

The GA is the national Unitarian organisation  for congregations, fellowships, societies and ministers and perhaps those who choose to be Associate Members.  However there is a difference between being the national organisation and being the centre. There have also been comments about how there are (may be?) many congregations that do not relate to/are unaffected by what the GA does.  If this is the case then can the GA actually be described as a centre, at least for these congregations?

Congregations are made up of individual people and they do not belong to the GA so perhaps there is also a problem with connections between the GA and individual Unitarians.

So is the role of the GA to be the national centre? The GA's constitution states the purpose of the GA in its Object

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition. 

To this end, the Assembly may: 

1. Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds; 

2. Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity; 

3. Act where necessary as the successor to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (including the formation and assistance of Congregations; the publication and circulation of biblical, theological, scientific and literary knowledge related to Unitarian Christianity; ....) and National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations (To consult, and when considered advisable to take action, on matters affecting the well-being and interests of the Congregations and Societies on the Roll of the Conference, as by directing attention, suggesting plans, organising expressions of opinion, raising funds to carry out the foregoing objects) ... 

4. Do all other such lawful things as are incidental to the attainment of the above Object. 

I have added in the bits in brackets to say what these roles are.

(Incidentally the EC's November meeting notes say, 'Constitutional Review Group. A report was received from the group. No constitutional changes were recommended.'  Which seems a real shame because I don't think that the Object is at all clear; I don't think it covers everything that the GA does or that it aspires to do; and it does not identify clearly who the charity's beneficiaries are.)

It seems to me that reading this the GA's main roles are to speak to the outside world and to act as a service organisation for local congregations.  These roles may be seen as central roles but they are not the same as a national body which controls its local, affiliated bodies like some national charities. This is a different model and therefore different approaches and attitudes are needed. Another concern, as I have written before, is that the new priorities are very inward looking. For the first time in my memory (in Unitarian terms this is relatively short) there is no priority around social action.

The second point is about whether the GA should be influencing congregations and fellowships.  As a service organisation it should be providing advice and guidance.  It should be organising events to identify and promote good practice.  They also have a significant input into the selection and training of ministers which might be seen to be a significant influence. So the GA can and does influence. 

What further ability to influence would they seek? And who wants to do this?  The item prompting this posting came from an EC member - so is it the EC which seeks to have more influence of local congregations and fellowships or just one EC member?  As an active member of a local congregation there are plenty of people trying to influence things locally, which is all well and good because they are within our community.  I guess we would say that we do not want the GA influencing what we do rather we would like them to support us in making our choices and taking actions.

I think that there may be some significant mismatches - between the GA's Object and what they do; and between what they think their role is and what we locally think their role is. My view is that it is better to reduce such mismatches so that there is greater clarity and everyone has a similar understanding about what the GA does.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Glass half-full or glass half-empty

At the beginning of the Facebook discussion as described two posts ago the EC member wrote - in corrected form

Essentially, we've tried to focus our very limited numbers of people and funds on the few top priorities ...

If I read the accounts correctly the General Assembly's income for the year 2009/10 was over £650,00. There are some 11 staff - not all full-time.  When I did a count a year or two ago of the number of volunteers in the commissions and panels I counted over 100.  These are people with expertise in spiritual matters as well as business matters such as finance, fundraising, PR, marketing, strategic development, governance, report writing, communications, web-design, etc.  There are other skills there too such as artistic, educational, social policy and working with young people. This is only those people directly volunteering for the General Assembly and does not include those involved with national societies let alone the districts or local congregations and fellowships.

In my world we are resource rich. What a wealth of resources - human and otherwise.  What we also have is an enormous amount of good will from most Unitarians in the UK and elsewhere in the world. 

But if we keep getting told that we are poor and have limited resources we will begin to believe it. Perhaps if you think you are resource poor then there is no expectation that much can be achieved.  I would dearly love someone on the EC to invite us to celebrate how rich we are as a faith community and then to expect great things. 

Public benefit

All charities need to pass the public benefit test. Here's what the Charity Commission says about the needs to report on public benefit

For smaller charities, below the audit threshold**, trustees are required to include a brief summary in their Trustees’ Annual Report of the main activities undertaken in order to carry out the charity’s aims for the public benefit. Trustees can, of course, provide fuller public benefit statements if they wish.

For larger charities, above the audit threshold**, trustees are required to provide a fuller explanation in their Trustees’ Annual Report of the significant activities undertaken in order to carry out the charity’s aims for the public benefit, as well as their aims and strategies. They are required to explain the charity’s achievements, measured by reference to the charity’s aims and to the objectives set by the trustees. It is up to the charity’s trustees to decide how much detail they want to provide to clearly illustrate what their charity has done in the reporting year to meet the requirement; the Commission will not be prescriptive about the number of words or pages needed. But a charity that said nothing on public benefit in its Trustees’ Annual Report, or produced only the briefest statement with no detail, would be in breach of the public benefit reporting requirement.

**For charities with accounting periods ending on or after 1 April 2009, an audit is required when a charity’s gross income in the year exceeds £500,000, or where income exceeds £250,000 and the aggregate value of its assets exceeds £3.26 million.

It is interesting times for we Unitarians as we now have three basic priorities - (1) local leadership; (2) ministry; and (3) visibility. It all seems a bit too much about us and no-one else.  The fact that our faith and social action work comes under visibility gives very much the wrong impression - we are doing it to make ourselves visible rather than because it is intrinsically right.

I know that the Quakers are significantly bigger than us but I was looking longingly at their annual report for last year - their objectives are around these areas

  • Strengthening our spiritual roots 
  • Speaking out in the world 
  • Peace 
  • Sustainability 
  • Strengthening local communities 
  • Crime, community and justice 
  • Using our resources well
It seems so outward looking compared to ours and it has an objective around the use of resources which fills my heart with joy!  I have long argued that it is a spiritual imperative to make the best use of all our resources.

Our new priorities do not serve us well.  I think that if we just focus on these issues then we will find it difficult to answer in more than a few words what benefit we provide to the public.  Let's hope that what we actually do is more impressive than what we say we are going to do.

Trustees and beneficiaries

I am so grateful for the Facebook discussion, part of which is outlined in the post below - I needed some inspiration for posts to this blog. This morning I have been thinking about the relationship between trustees and their beneficiaries.

Trustees are in a position of trust or responsibility for the benefit of another. In the case of the General Assembly's (GA) Executive Committee members (trustees) they have the responsibility to govern the GA for the benefit of its beneficiaries.

The GA's beneficiaries are not too clearly identified in the GA object.  Whilst it mentions congregations and societies the membership of the General Assembly is much wider than that. Members include full (congregations, fellowships, societies, minister, lay leaders, trustees), associate and honorary GA members. 

As a charity the GA must also have a broader benefit which is called 'public benefit'.  I will discuss this in a later post.

I will now digress to discuss an issue that I came across after I had left an organisation whose chair I had been for many years.  I was asked to stop being a trustee as I was doing some paid research for them, as they could find no-one else to do it.  It was a strange position to be in but interesting.  They were deciding to significantly change their object.  I had some conversations about this and asked who they had discussed this with.  They had asked staff and volunteers.  I asked if they thought that these were the people to whom they were accountable. 

I suggested that as a charity their consultation should have been with their beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries. I had no say but felt that I needed to put the case for the beneficiaries as I hoped that it had been their needs which had driven the organisation's development whilst I was on the board. 

We need to ensure that staff and volunteers are well treated and supported in their work but it is not their wishes that should drive developments.  It the needs of the beneficiaries. Sometimes, hopefully often, staff and volunteers should know the needs of their beneficiaries and if they don't they can be tasked to ask. 

To understand the needs of your beneficiaries it is helpful to be on good terms with them, to listen to what they say and not to misrepresent what they have said.  It would be interesting to ask our GA trustees who they believe their beneficiaries are and what values underpin their dealings with these beneficiaries.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to win friends and influence people

Was in a discussion about the future direction of the Unitarian community.  The thread started by an EC member (the only one who engages on Facebook) begins thus

I'm on the EC. Throw things if you like!

(But I think he was only joking!)

My contribution was summed up by him as 

Louise Rogers questions's Jen's view that youth are essential to our future .... 

In fact I argued that we should not be supporting young people just so that at some point in the future they should take over the running of a congregation.  In the case of the Newcastle-under-Lyme congregation the vast majority of active adults are adult converts. I actually wrote

I think that providing support to youth is vital but not so that they can run anything.

You'd be hard pressed to summarise this as not thinking that youth are essential to our future - but I guess that if you try hard enough you can.  He goes on

... and (Louise Rogers) argues that we should not say that the choices we need to make are difficult.

I actually wrote 

Our choices are no more difficult than those that the majority of organisations have to make. Once we call things difficult choices we imbue them with an emotional content around struggle and anguish. The situation that we have today is what we live with, we are hoping to make things better - this is about a brighter future not a difficult choice.

So I did not say that the choices weren't difficult just that they were similar to what other organisations had to make and that how you define things creates a different emotional picture.  You'd be hard pressed to summarise this as me saying that the choices weren't difficult - but I guess that if you try hard enough you can. 

I also wrote about how to take forward strategic development.  I suggested that we should start with what needs young people had.  This person then responded 

Please, tell us what needs we have, what outcomes are required, and how we should best fit those into the available resources (or expand the resources).

I replied 

I do not sit nationally with a view on what our needs are. The EC has done at least two listening exercises over the past few years. If the EC does not have a view on what the needs are then to put it bluntly either you weren't asking the right questions or you weren't listening. (He did suggest that we throw things - clearly he was joking!) It is not for me to say what outcomes young people want, it's for the young people. Once this information was available then I think that the EC should lead the debate on how to do this but I would be happy to help as I am sure others would.

No response to that one.

I then rewrote the summary of my contributions as 

Louise Rogers thinks that support to youth is vital. She suggests a needs-led strategic approach to our development and also suggests that we entitle our strategic development as (creating) brighter futures. 

I remain disappointed with this member of the EC.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Measuring what we do

I was meeting with colleagues last week discussing how we were going to measure the performance indicators that our paymaster had set us.  We are working with local voluntary organisations mentoring senior staff and boards to help them to become, in the jargon, more sustainable.  The first indicator was 'financial stability'.  We discussed this and some thought that asking people at the beginning to rate their financial stability at the beginning of the work and then to rate it at the end was the way to go.

Rating scales such as these should only be used when you can't think of anything else or if you ask for evidence.  Our response to such questions can depend on all sorts of things - in this instance if an organisation just got turned down for a grant people may be feeling temporarily gloomy or they may have just got a grant and may be feeling unusually optimistic.  It might even be something in their personal life which is affecting their mood. And anyway what is financial stability?

Those organisations which do best financially are those which have financial management in place and an active approach to finding funding.  They also understand about spreading risk.  If you only have one funder there is a higher risk than if you have many because that funder may stop funding you and then all you money is gone rather than just, for example, 10%.  Here are my thoughts of how we might measure financial stability.

  • Responsibility taken by trustees for monitoring finances - as a minimum quarterly in times of difficulty monthly or perhaps more frequently
  • Active financial management – budgets and cash-flows which are updated as actual figures emerge to replace projections (estimates)
  • A good understanding of finances and some financial skills amongst trustees and staff
  • A history of overcoming financial difficulties
  • Diversity of funding sources
  • The length of funding contracts (some times fixed and sometimes on a rolling basis)
  • A mix of restricted (for a specific purpose) and unrestricted funding where core costs can be covered by unrestricted funding
  • Policies and procedures in place which ensure the integrity of resource management
  • A well-considered reserves level - too little and there is a risk to your operations and too much and you are not fulfilling your charitable objects
  • A good public profile with plenty of political support - not to be used often but there as a backstop if things look really bleak
  • And overall - everyone within the organisation understands that finances are what keeps the show on the road and are 100% committed to helping out if called to do so.  Once when an organisation whose board I chaired was in deep financial crisis as expected grants had not come in or were delayed.  I instructed the chief officer to get all the workers to stop doing what they were doing so that they could concentrate for two weeks on fundraising - either activity stopped for two weeks or forever.
Whilst we may struggle to measure financial stability the health of our faith communities is much more difficult to measure.  I am interested to know what proxy measures we may use to assess how well our faith communities are doing.  Bums on seats and ...  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Active trusteeship

I am currently working with a voluntary organisation which is facing an uncertain future (like many) because of the uncertainty of funding from health agencies and local authorities.  This year it is likely to have to spend £10,000 of its reserves.  I have advised that this is brought to the Board's attention and it is minuted that this situation is understood and agreed.  My advice was for the worker to make recommendations but be clear that it is the Board making the decisions.

I have also suggested that he do a monthly cash-flow for next year to show the Board when the money runs out.  His first attempt included in it money that they hoped to get.  I suggested that this gave a much rosier picture than was the case and that the Board had to know when the balance of funds went under their reserves figure and when the balance figure became a negative number.  If anything would spur me into action it would be knowing that we were running out of money.  I hope that this has the desired impact on his Board and that at some point they grasp the urgency of the situation.

I was reminded of when I was brought in very late in the day to help a long-running local organisation to stave off closure.  I asked the chief officer and the chair of the Board, 'How much does it cost to run this organisation every month?'  Neither of them knew.  The chair of the Board was then surprised to find out that all the reserves had been spent.  I wondered at this point what management information was provided at Board meetings.  A couple of months later the organisation closed not because they did bad work but because they had neglected the most basic of issues - how much money do we spend and how much money have we got coming in.

In neither instance are/were people knowingly being irresponsible but in reality that's what it is.  To act responsibly you have to know what your responsibilities are and then you have to  act.  I have observed quite a few trustees over the years and there are a significant number who think that their work is done once the board meeting is over. In these times of financial uncertainty trustees more than ever really need to step up to the plate.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Outside help

This morning I met with someone whose organisation has been going for six months.  They have achieved a lot and have several learning institutions and health agencies interested in working with them.  Their problem is that they could do so much (as there is a real gap in the field that they work in) but as yet they are not a registered charity and have no permanent staff.  My job this morning was to reflect back what they are doing, to suggest that this is too much and to help the person to vocalise their core purpose.  Less than an hour talking through things and the woman leading it had a much clearer idea.  

This is the value of having an outsider to talk you through your difficulties.  It's another pair of eyes and another body of experience and knowledge which will look at things differently.  In my work I cannot afford to hang around.  I have in the first instance three meetings to get some real change.  More often than not I am only saying what they would say if they were not so busy just keeping the show on the road.

The other thing that I am able to do because I am paid to do it is to take action.  This organisation has the near-offer of some money if it can produce a business plan.  I can do this fairly quickly as long as I know what it is that they want to do and what they want to achieve through their actions.

In our communities and congregations it is worth getting an outsider in to review what we are doing and how effective we are.  We may not have the resources to pay someone to get something like a strategic plan together but we may get some pointers about this and could perhaps ask our district or the General Assembly for some help. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Conflicts of interest and loyalty

In small organisations it is easy to slip into an informal way of doing things when people who are keen on following procedures are seen as killjoys - ruining the 'party'.  I am all for informality but I am also all for ensuring one's own integrity and that of our organisations.  There may be situations when we have a conflict of interest - but more often than not our trustees do not get any benefit from their involvement.  Although some may get an honorarium and some may have paid roles within the community such as the organist, paid warden or gardener.  However I think that these are fairly straightforward and people would understand the issue.  

It is with conflicts of loyalities that we need to be on our guard.  In small communities there are people who are married, who are related in other ways, who are close friends and perhaps who help us out, by giving us a lift, giving us flowers or a listening ear.  How do we ensure that we make decisions based on what we think is good for everyone rather than just those people we are closest to or to whom we think we owe a debt?  There are not many times when we have contentious decisions to make but these are the times when we show the level of maturity that our organisations are at.

In some way we need to take a level of emotion out of decision-making.  Forget who our friends and family are, forget that we usually vote the same way as person X and take a dispassionate view of the situation.  We cannot be wholly objective but we do need to try.  As trustees (committee members) we are not deciding what is good for us but deciding what is good for everybody.

I have written recently about the volunteering that I'm doing at a local community centre  and the discussions over governance structures.  The chair has told me on several occasions not to upset one particular person who has done a lot of work on this.  I have asked him how I give people my honest opinion that their proposal just will not work, as I have tried many approaches.  If we are talking models of governance it is clear - good practice is clear - and how similar charities work is clear.  This is not personal but professional.  In some situations I have been in, not this one, I have been with people who have chosen to invest emotional capital in a situation - making it very definitely personal rather than professional: a test of personal loyalty.

If we are talking about people's feelings being heavily invested in being right or being in control then what can anyone do?  Our loyalty always has to be to good working practices - we don't need to be unpleasant about it but we do need to be clear.  We are not making a decision because of a loyalty to one person's feelings but to the organisation.  Some people choose the decision which causes least upset - this is not what the law says trustees should do.

So in preparing ourselves for objective decision-making our communities need to understand how good decisions are made and that the focus of any decision is the health of the organisation, in our case our faith community, and not the feelings of any one individual.  We need to ensure that the decision-making process is understood and agreed with everyone beforehand.  In psychological terms we are making rational, adult decisions. After a decision is made, if there are people feeling upset, then we need to be compassionate whilst remaining 100% committed to the decision.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Back to policies

I wrote briefly about writing policies in February of this year.  Here I am again writing about the importance of writing your own - or at least being heavily involved in what gets written.

I have just written a conflict of interest policy and procedures for a voluntary organisation that I am working with.  There's nothing like actually writing a policy yourself.  Many people search the Internet and copy someone else's.  This has two major drawbacks - (1) you are assuming that it's a well-written document; (2) you are assuming that for each organisation the issues are the same.

In my experience of writing and researching policies and procedures there's a lot of copying and so a lot of very badly written documents.  People more often than not confuse policies with procedures - there are overlaps but there are also some clear dividing lines.  In fact most people's policies are procedures and there's no policy document at all or there's just one paragraph.  Policy documents are vital because they tell you what to take into account if you are dealing with something that hasn't been thought of and has no procedure.

Essentially policies are about why and the big issue whats - why has the policy been written, what principles and values of the organisation does this reflect, what are the issues that need addressing and what do we need to keep in mind when making decisions or carrying out actions.  Procedures are about how - how is the policy to be implemented - and this then brings in when, where, who and the specific whats.  Who does what (specific thing), when and where.  

It is certainly worth looking at other people's polices and procedures and seeing what they have covered.  It is also useful to critique these - to help you to understand what a good policy and procedure may look like.  Because I do this for a living I have a fairly standard format which separates the policy from the procedures.  Having a standard format is helpful but you mustn't be bound by it - writing a policy on trustee behaviour may look quite different from one on computer-use health and safety.  

You need to think - 'Who will use these, how will they use them and what will make it easier for them to use?'.  You may want some appendices and just keep the basics in the main documents.  Appendices may contain information about the law on certain issues in more depth than in the main document, for example equality issues.  Or they may contain some guidelines from a good practice document.

You need to think of your specific situation, your organisation's values and the way that you actually do things.  As long as what you currently do is safe, legal and in line with your principles you would probably be best writing up what you actually do as your procedures.  When I write procedures I try to reflect what people have told me about what they do and then ask them to check carefully what I've written.  An external consultant should not be telling an organisation how they do business - we can inform and advise - but ultimately it is the trustees of the organisation who need to assert how they will do things and how they will ensure that those things are actually done.

Like anything it becomes easier with practice but if you always copy someone else's you won't get much practice.  It is important that organisations have some policies and procedures but they need to be good quality, fit for purpose and owned by everyone within the organisation.  It is better to have a few good quality policies and procedures than a full set of someone else's that no-one has read let alone implemented.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Simply does it

I am volunteering with a local Community Centre which has been open for three months - I am on the events team.  Because I chair this I get to sit on other groups and get the opportunity to input into more general issues. At the moment the trustees are developing the structure and processes for governance.  It is important to remember what stage organisations are at - starting a charity is very different to being with a well-established charity which has all its structures and processes in place.  

Much of the experience that people are bringing to the Board table comes from their experience with other charities which weren't new. Also some of the trustees were holding trustees for the previous village hall so had no management responsibilities.  The organisation is now a company so no need for holding trustees as the company owns the land and the buildings.  Therefore these trustee need to be very clear about what is expected of them from the Charity Commission and from good practice guidance.

The building cost over £1.5m to build and is fantastic. It has a lovely big hall with several smaller rooms.  The Police have their post there and the County Council runs a Children's Centre.  There is a cafe and a bar.  It is built to a very high spec. This all gives the idea of a big place - it is an extensive building on a large piece of land and there is loads of activity.  The aspiration and the reality are that this is a big thing.  But the organisation is small.  There are less than five whole time equivalent staff and although there are quite a few volunteers - many of us get recycled into different roles.

Any governance structure has to reflect the particular stage that an organisation is at and its size - not the size of the building it inhabits but the size of the organisation - what is the financial turn-over and how many people are involved.  For such an organisation as the Community Centre any structure needs to be simple.  The Board needs to be very active in leading the developments and understanding what their role is.  This group of people (the trustees) are used to talking about building a community centre not running it.

I have been quite tenacious in attempting to get them to think small and simple - to ensure that the Board has a handle on what is happening and that those decisions which are not delegated to sub-groups or staff are actually made by the Board and not some other group.  There only needs to be two tiers of governance - the Board and then sub-groups and task and finish groups and the staff team implementing board decisions.  Any more and confusion arises.

Once this structure has been agreed the bigger portion of the work begins on getting the processes right.  This is much easier with a simpler structure.  A more complicated structure may emerge but it will emerge in response to need and can be managed.  I appreciate that many of the trustees would like to relax a bit now that the building is open but this phase is key.  Board meetings should be monthly and tightly managed.  

The best approach is to encourage action plans to be written by each group meeting under the Board and to ask for exception reporting.  The Board therefore knows what should be happening and only gets alerted to things not getting done (that should have been done) or new things being done (that weren't planned for).

Every time I make a proposal which differs from what is being suggested I write a full paper explaining why.  It is often these active exchanges which are more educational than any training that could be offered.  It's learning on the job which works really well for most of us.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Refreshing our vision

I have started some short-term support for a local organisation which has been through a bit of turbulence with its board of trustees.  Others have got involved in the disputes and it seems as if it were quite unpleasant for some time.  The remaining board members seem a bit shell-shocked and tentative.  Do they really know what they are doing?  How can they stop this sort of thing happening again?  Haven't they got better things to do with their evenings and weekends?

I like my first meeting to end on an upbeat note and with actions.  I am fairly confident about thinking on my feet and seeing a way forward after an hour talking through the issues.  I have been doing this sort of thing for quite a long time.  In this instance I am an outsider and it was easy to see that this was a well-run organisation which just needed a refresh.  A bit like hitting the refresh button on your internet browser.  Rather than looking at the webpage from when you last looked at it, you are looking at the webpage as it is now.  This board needs to see their organisation as they are now not how they were when the battle was raging.

Rather than focus on the problems I asked them what they did best - what really worked well?  Their shoulders relaxed and they smiled - how good it was to be talking about what they did well rather than focus problems.  They organise a series of events over the year and seem to do this very well.  One which they are particularly proud of has a real community focus.  They were beginning to think that to make it work better they might need to commercialise it.  I suggested if the good thing was the community element then they should work on making this element bigger and better.  Capitalise on what works well and do more of that.

It is so easy to be mired in the past, in unhealthy situations and in identifying problems. The focus on problems can depress us and sap our energy.  We do not need to ignore problem areas but we do need to move forward doing things that come easy to us, that bring us joy and that use the talents that we have rather than those that we don't.  Small voluntary and community organisations such as local faith communities cannot be all things to all people.  By focusing our energies on our current resources - people, things and money - we can create something that works well enough.  If we feel that we are being successful then we are spurred on to do even more.

Monday, August 15, 2011

How do you counter absence?

I am currently volunteering at the new community centre down the road.  I am helping with events.  However I sit on the Development Group as I am chair of the Events Team and then get involved in governance although this is not my role.  They are setting up the governance arrangements and I have been slightly concerned with the lack of clarity.  So I have spoken to the governance lead and written a paper.  This was seemingly ignored as the original proposal was sent out again saying that it needed agreeing at the next meeting.  So I sent the paper to all group members - to help the debate.  In my view they needed to be aware of all the options that have been discussed.  

My problem is that I think I am 'working' with someone who sees this as a some kind of battle between people rather than as a process to get the right structure and process in place - irrespective of who first said what and how.  I know it's a personality thing and I recognise how this person may have problems with my approach (or perhaps me!).  I am not sure that this person recognises this or that I might have problems with their approach.  Perhaps they think it's OK to ignore people as a means of expediting what they want to happen.

It is very difficult to counter absence - an absence of response, an absence round the table (the person has said that they won't be at tonight's meeting) or an absence of respect.  The problem can then be that the person present becomes the one under the spotlight.  I remember, when doing my social work training, that the community work lecturer who was very boring, told us that the attendance at his lectures was not good enough and that there would be consequences - we did point out to him that he was talking to those who were there who weren't the problem.  He faced the same dilemma - how do you counter absence?  

Sins of omission are so much harder to identify than sins of commission.  And yet omission can be just as harmful and hurtful.  I struggle every time I am in a situation like this.  My reaction tends to be to try to be as honest and as open as I can without any emotional language or blaming.  In some circumstances that can be difficult, for example if you describe a situation where you have constantly tried to contact someone and they haven't responded it seems fairly clear where the breakdown of communications is.  However we do not know if someone is not connecting with us what the problems may be.  So I aim for openness and honesty and a focus on the goal.  What am I trying to achieve - in this instance it's using my skills to make our community centre work more effectively.  

I often have anxious times about such things - I know that if people are more emotional about 'business' than I am that they will react more emotionally to any communication.  Hence I try to focus on what needs to be said in plain language and hope that someone somewhere will appreciate that I am trying to do the right thing.  

Such experiences lead us to recognise that whenever we work with people we enter a minefield of personalities and approaches, ours included. Someone else's absence has to be countered by our own presence albeit a more considered presence.  If we focus on the task in hand and our own behaviour then we can feel that at the very least we have done ourselves justice.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Finding free solutions for communicating

I was working with a voluntary organisation last night - they have been talking about developing a piece of land for many years and I work for a mentoring scheme to help chief officers and boards helping them to move forward.  This is a small community group with very big aspirations - the two main people involved have high levels of skill and motivation and are eager to learn.  I am not sure that they would agree that I have been mentoring them - bullying may be a more accurate description.  

Essentially my line has been - something has to happen, the talking has to stop and local people need to see a change.  And whilst I am being paid by the hour I don't want to drag this on and on - then I would become part of the problem.  I don't just talk I also do - so I have drafted a business plan - populated some of it with information that they have given me but left the rest blank.  And last night I was offering advice about websites, domain names and e-newsletters.  Whilst I was there they paid to have a domain name for a year - so much better to come away from a meeting knowing that something has been achieved.

They have already set up a website using WordPress and can now have their own domain name linked to this.  They can also have some email addresses specifically for their work for the organisation, which means that they can set up a PayPal account and when they do a press release very soon they can advertise that they can accept donations via PayPal.  This can all be linked to their Facebook page and they are thinking about creating an e-newsletter using MailChimp.

The person taking all the e-communications forward is 61, just a little older than me.  So we cannot say - this sort of stuff is for young people.  We do have to engage with the electronic age if we want to take our message out into the world.  It can be time-intensive to set these things up and to manage them but most of what I do with regard to website and e-communications is free or very low cost.

Of course we have to remember that may people in our communities are not connected to the internet and don't not have a computer, neither do they want one.  So decide how you will connect with these people both providing them with information but also finding ways to get their views expressed and how they can contribute articles or comments on your communications.  Communication is intended to be two-way.

It is a challenge but it is a real pleasure when people tell you how much they appreciate receiving a communication in whatever format.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Working with our beneficiaries

Having an interview certainly does stimulate my thinking.  One of the questions that is often asked at an interview for voluntary sector jobs is about user-involvement.  This can be a bit tricky especially if you are a user-involvement cynic like myself.  

If you have money you can buy services and if you don't like them no-one expects you to then answer questions about why you don't like the services and what would have made them better.  No-one expects you to get involved in user events or to sit on a committee.  You just take your money elsewhere.

For public and voluntary sector provision there is a lot known about what makes a good service - there's loads of good practice and you can pay people to give you advice about specialist subjects.  If there was £5,000 going spare would you rather spend it on some user-involvement event or on delivering some more services?  I know which one I'd choose.  When the choice made is user-involvement, more professionals get employed and money gets taken from front-line services.  

My view is close to heresy.  So when asked about user-involvement I talked about the difference between user-involvement and being user-led, which was the specific question, and then talked about the difference between users and beneficiaries.  Every charity has to have beneficiaries and it is hoped that service users are a sub-set of these - but there are likely to be many more potential beneficiaries than actually receive services.  So who are those people, how do we know what they want, are they not using services because they don't want to or because they can't?  And are they more needy than the people who actually use the service now?

If we think about our own communities we talk more in terms of democracy - that everyone should be involved in decision-making.  But what of those people who might want some involvement but either don't know we exist or can't get to us (travel difficulties or the wrong time) or into the building?  What about those who want something similar but slightly different - what might that mean?  How do we find out about these people?  How do we find out what they want?  How do we design something that suits them?

Comparing with services provided by the public or voluntary sectors there is less information available, very little good practice to draw from.  We need to gather data about what we do - what others do - and how well that works.  This is not about increasing the numbers of bottoms on pews but about meeting spiritual needs.  In this instance I am all for spending resources on finding out what people want because we don't know.  We know what people in our communities want - the actual 'service users' - but we don't know what others want (or need) - these are the remainder of our beneficiaries.

One of the things that we do do is to try new things - does this bring in new people or are we just providing something a little different to our existing community members?  It seems to me that we all need to commit to talking with people who have a liberal view on spirituality and who are not attending any church (or are unhappy with the church that they do attend) and to explore with them what they actually want, what they actually need.  For whilst people currently within our communities may be very happy with what is on offer this may not reflect the needs of those who potentially would benefit from what Unitarianism has to offer. 

And then how do we develop this body of knowledge and make it useful for others to both use and to add to?  As a rational faith we often seem quite irrational.  Let's see what works for others and take the best bits for ourselves.  I will say it again - we need a few models - this time about how to engage with a broader range of people.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding the right person

I had a job interview this week - to become a grants assessor for a national foundation.  I already do this voluntarily in the borough where I live and I've lost count of the number of bids that I've put in myself to funding organisations and central government.  Most often it's been done with others - the biggest was for £20m and I was doing amongst other things the finances - 60 linked spread sheets - one for each project which made up the programme.  Each project was due to have funding from a number of sources.  Not to be to be too cliche'ed - it was a nightmare.  People would merrily tell me that they'd changed one figure from 6 to 7 as if that was easy (and next week tell me that no it was indeed 6!) - on one spread sheet yes it's easy but to get the total correct so that all the funding streams added up to the same final figure that was the art.  

Of course most of the bids that I've done have been much much smaller - I wrote one recently for a small craft group for £441 and it was accepted - the pleasure in this for me was not them getting the money but that the woman running the group would no longer have to worry about finances - and all it took was £441. One thing that has irritated me has been grants advisers who have a lot of experience of assessing but no experience of developing and running projects. How rounded are they?

I am now the chair of a grant-making trust and within that role I have rewritten the whole process for grant applications, rewritten the grant application forms and the guidance and all the acceptance letters.  It is a strange thing to be on the other side of the table and to understand why funders need certain bits of information.  There is a challenge in trying to put into English what information is required and why: trying to be clear and precise.  What I have learnt is that whatever you do write, there will always be some people who either don't read it or they think that it doesn't matter very much.  For example if they put one figure in the budget and there's another in the quote for the item wanting to be purchased - this happens every grant round.  But I also understand that for people wanting to get on with a project or to continue something that's already running that filling in a grant application form can be seen to be a hurdle to be jumped over rather than a process to be engaged with.  A good grant-giver will support organisations in developing their skills in bid-writing which should help them in managing their project.

I have also learnt that I already know a lot about assessing grants because of (a) putting programmes of projects together I have been assessing each project with spend and outcomes figures challenged; and (b) in putting in bids myself you see what the difficulties are - you understand why for example the proposed cashflow is a fiction; why you won't know until you start the project what the real outcomes will be; and why some people are good at putting bids in but that does not make their project a good one.
I didn't get the job.  The woman was very nice when she phoned.  They had agonised over the decision but in the end had decided that I didn't have enough experience of assessing grants.  I have learnt that it is better not to argue with someone who in the future you may end up working with or for.  And anyway the decision has been made and the person appointed.  I believe that I have ample experience of assessing grants large and small, and have a balanced view from both sides.  And I have experience of actually developing and running projects - I have been a front line service provider, a manager and a trustee -  and that makes an enormous difference, at least in my eyes.

The issue for me these days in application forms and in interviews is how to encapsulate 45 years of experience in the voluntary sector and 36 years in work as a front line worker, a manager, a service planner, a consultant and a mentor.  To be honest I can't remember half of what I have done.  And even if I could there's got to be lots of things left out in a 45-minute interview.  

And as I get older I find that wisdom and compassion are vital qualities for most of the jobs that I am likely to apply for but no-one tests to see whether I have either.  I am pretty phlegmatic about job interviews - as a self-employed consultant who puts in tenders I am constantly being judged and constantly being found to be wanting.  

I also know that I am very good at what I do and would have been very good at this job.  Not having experience of something has always been a minor issue for me when I have interviewed people.  You can gain skills, knowledge and experience.  It is much more difficult to learn attitudes and develop personal characteristics.

So what is this posting about?  I think that it's about roundness of character and the value of spiritual maturity, which may come at any age  It is about moving away from itemised lists which tell us what we want from people and thinking about the person's values and what value they will add.  I have heard that there is a developing conversation about ministry and the requirements for a good minister.  I will put my vote in here for wisdom and compassion and perhaps a touch of charisma.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thinking outcomes

Trawling the net looking for things about organisational development and I found this by Richard Piper who is the Head of Strategy and Impact at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.  Here's a part of what he writes

In 10 years of supporting organisations on ‘outcomes’, I have found it helpful every single time to clarify the three main things you can ‘do’ with outcomes:
  • plan your achievements, including improving them (plan and grow
  • monitor and evaluate your achievements and failures (know
  • communicate your achievements and failures (show).
Organisations, time and again, get by far the most benefit out of the planning and growing task. Asking and discussing the 'big six' questions never fails to propel an organisation forwards, perhaps not always smoothly, but always significantly:
  • Who/what in the world will change as a result of our work?
  • What changes do we want to make happen?
  • Why are those changes important?
  • What are the best ways to make those changes happen?
  • What other organisations are working with these people or on this cause or topic, and how do we fit with them?
  • How can we make more change happen within our existing resources?
 And he goes on the write

So the single most important piece of advice I can offer about outcomes is: don’t leap to worrying about measurement, it’s not primarily about measurement, it’s about discussing and agreeing, as an organisation, what change you want to see in the world and what role your organisation will play in achieving this.

For many Unitarian communities it is about having the debate about change, about development.  Not just about how are we going to keep doing what we have always done but what we are dreaming about and how can we make this real. And as the last bullet point above says - this is not about more money but doing different things within the same budget.

So let's set about changing the world - even if we start with our own.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

10 useful questions for avoiding problems

I just love the Charity Commission and the way that it produces easy to understand guidance for charities - I guess that that's it job but it does do it very well.  Here's a very useful ten questions which can also be found here.

These 10 questions cover some of the most important things that trustees need to think about to avoid common problems.

1. Do your activities match the charitable purposes set out in your governing document?

To avoid problems in running your charity you should make sure that you use the charity’s money and premises for the purposes set out in your governing document. This doesn’t stop you from spending money on office equipment or furniture or insurance. There are lots of things that make the charity an efficient and safe place for your trustees, staff, volunteers and users. Just be careful to get the balance right, so that your users always get most of the benefit.

2. Can your charity still do what it was originally set up to do?

Charities work best when they are helping to solve a clear need or problem. If that need or problem changes or disappears, the need for the charity might also change or disappear. To change what your charity does, you must firstly change the purposes in your governing document – you will probably need our help with this.

3. Were all the trustees appointed in the way your governing document says they should be?

The governing document may have rules about how the trustees must be appointed, or who must appoint them and how long they can be trustees. Don’t forget that you can usually change things in the governing document if they’re not working properly.

4. Did you check if there is someone who is not allowed to be a trustee?
  • have committed a crime;
  • have been declared bankrupt; or
  • have been forbidden to be a trustee by the Charity Commission or by some other body.
It’s a good idea to ask newly appointed trustees to sign a form to declare that they haven’t been disqualified. Even better, you could ask the trustees to sign the form every year as well. We have a form you can use.

5. Have you written down how the trustees will identify and deal with conflicts of interest?

Almost all charities will have trustees with conflicts of interest. There is nothing wrong with this if they are properly managed. The important thing is that everybody knows what the conflicts of interest are and how to make sure that they don’t cause problems. Conflicts of interest are not just about money. They can also be about trustees who have loyalties or responsibilities to more than one organisation or to more than one group of people. And a conflict of interest might also involve someone close to a trustee, like a family member or a business partner.

6. Do you regularly look at your governing document?

It’s important to check what your governing document says. It should tell you what your charity is set up to do, who should be running it and how to organise meetings. You can change your governing document to make it better. Most charities can change their governing documents easily. In some cases you might need our help.

7. Do you think about how to avoid the main things that could cause problems for your charity?

All charities have problems from time to time. Some are things you can’t plan for – they just happen. But some problems are things you know are more likely to happen You could make a list of the likely problems. Use the list to think about:
  • which of the problems are more important; and
  • how you might be able to deal with them
This activity is called risk management.

8. Do you have ways of checking how well your charity is doing?

Setting targets for your charity will help you know what you need to plan for. Checking if you’ve met your targets will help you learn if you’ve got your planning right. Or maybe there are things you need to do differently next time. Meeting targets is also a good way of showing other people, eg donors, how well your charity’s doing.

9. Do you do have a plan for how you will raise and spend the charity’s money?

Plans can be simple if you’re a very small charity but will need to become more detailed as you get bigger. Think about getting some help from someone who has experience of making budgets. This doesn’t have to cost anything if you can find a suitable volunteer. Be realistic about what money your charity will have, and check if this fits with your targets for the year.

10. Are you preparing accounts and a trustees’ report showing what you have spent over the year and what you’ve done?

All charities, even if they are not registered, must prepare accounts. All registered charities must prepare a Trustees’ Annual Report. But even if you don’t have to write a trustees’ report, it can be a useful way of showing the good job you’re doing to people interested in the charity.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Making sure that your organisation keeps up with your ambition

In my paid work I support community and voluntary groups to grow. More often than not my role is to ensure that people keep their eye on the organisational tasks. Most of us are happy to dream about what our groups and organisations could be like. Probably there are fewer people who are committed to acting to make things happen - like organising a new kind of worship, helping at a social and contacting people who are poorly. And fewer still are interested in getting the organisation right.

What are some of the issues? Sometimes it's about scaling our ambitions so that they are not too small to be insignificant and not too large so as to be unachievable. I am working with one group of people who have been talking for over ten years about how to develop a piece of land. Trouble is that they don't own the land and have no money - so the first thing to do is to set an achievable target for year one. You can keep the big dream - but you must be open to changing this as your organisation develops. The aim of any organisation must be to achieve something however small as this gives encouragement to do a little bit more.

Sometimes it's about getting all the right processes and policies in place. I am working with another group which is led by a lady in her 70s who does everything: manages the money, runs the group and keeps all the supplies at home. It is now growing and she is getting concerned that it all rests on her shoulders. If she, unexpectedly, did not turn up one week there would be no group. So I have supported them all in drawing up a constitution so that they can get a bank account, getting a health and safety policy and an equal opps policy so that they can apply for funding to pay for, amongst other things, some boxes so that supplies and equipment can be stored at the venue, and helped put a funding bid together. They only need a few hundred pounds to set them up for the coming year to enable them to concentrate on what they do best - being together as a group and making craft items. And raising money for the local hospital.

I am also working with an organisation which has had a very successful ten years with money flowing in but they neglected to develop the organisation. The service delivery was excellent and they were well thought of but one thing you can't do as a voluntary organisation is forget that you have to find funding - finance isn't secured unless it is in the bank. Promises from the public sector about funding may be made in good faith but if the financial situation of the public sector changes or priorities change then those promises may come to nought. This is when you realise how useful risk assessments are and understand that someone looking after the business is key to keeping the whole thing going.

It is that old chestnut that you hear from voluntary and community organisations including our own congregations - 'we aren't here to do business'. No we aren't - but we aren't put on this earth to breathe but we have to do it if we are to achieve anything else. So we have to do our business and do it well. We have to ensure that those who do it don't feel burdened because no-one else wants to do it - the work needs sharing around; we have to respect those who do the business and listen to their concerns; and if we live our values then the way that we do business should reflect our ethos - it should for example be collaborative, open, transparent and easily understood.

As we develop and grow as communities we need to be aware that the business side may need to change. We need to ensure that the way that we do business supports the way that we do everything else and vice versa.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

AGMs and charity membership

I was working with a community group last week and someone from the local CVS (council for voluntary services) who was supporting them spoke about AGMs, saying that there was no guidance about how to run them. I assured her that there was (and sent information via email the next day) but the first port of call has to be your constitution. It should perhaps be my theme song, 'Look to your governing document'. But of course some of our communities don't have a proper constitution just a trust deed that was written centuries ago where there may be no mention of an AGM.

I find that people can get quite confused about what an AGM is for and what gets done. The first confusion arises when people think that every charity has to have an AGM and the second confusion arises when it is thought that everyone attending gets a vote. Those of us attending the General Assembly AGM (business part of the Annual Meetings) know that not everyone has a vote - you have to have a voting card which you hold in your hand when you vote. Only members have votes - which means individual members of the GA and representatives of member organisations such as congregations and districts. Then there is the assumption that for example all trustees get re-elected ... and the answer is ? .... you guessed it! look to your governing document. Just because one organisation does it one way does not mean that yours does the same.

Membership can be a tricky concept. The members of a charity have their role defined in the governing document. Sometimes there are different types of members and sometimes there aren't. Following a review of membership issues the Charity Commission is planning to review its own guidance and perhaps write an example of a membership clause for constitutions. The report recommends that Trustees should:
  • pay careful attention to the governance arrangements that relate to the charity’s members, in particular:
    • that the rights of each different type of member and their role within the charity are clearly set out;
    • that the role of corporate members is fully understood;
    • that effective means of communication with all members are in place;
    • that the membership list is kept up-to-date;
    • that the governance arrangements are regularly reviewed, including the number of members they have and the level at which a quorum is set;
  • consider whether it is appropriate to include a clause in their governing document setting out the respective roles and responsibilities of members and consider whether any additional procedural documents would be beneficial;
  • consider whether their membership is truly representative of the group it is designed to serve and, if not, consider ways of reaching those that are excluded;
  • be aware of the potential benefits of mediation and, where appropriate, consider whether it might be a useful tool for resolving a disagreement within the charity.
It is important that if a charity has members that it should communicate with them and attempt to make us of them to add value to what the trustees do. Before this happens you have to know who they are and what they can do.

If your community has an old trust deed and is not in a position to adopt a new constitution it may be worth talking about membership and also about AGMs. You don't necessarily have to conclude your discussions quickly, just putting the issues on the table may be enough to generate a useful debate. What is important is that everyone knows if there are members, what their roles and responsibilities are and who are the members. Writing things down goes a long way to getting a shared understanding and can provide the basis for an on-going debate about these issues.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Putting values into practice

I have been working lately with a few quite small organisations. They want to grow or are just growing naturally as they get more members and they need to prove to themselves and to others that they are working with integrity. I am reminded by some of the conversations that I am having how people feel that they need to show to others that things are being done properly. They appreciate that others are happy with things as they are and that they trust them but there is something that is niggling them about making everything open and transparent.

Whilst we often do things in the charity world to show external bodies that we are doing things properly it is often our own concerns which drive us. I am the chair of an organisation which rents out units in an historic building to local businesses and charities. We then use the surplus to make grants and to maintain the building. We have a couple of units to rent out and have decided as a board on the new rent figure - our agent thinks that we can get more and is in negotiation with a prospective tenant. Of course getting more fits well with our charitable objectives but whilst I want to get this sorted quickly I also want to ensure that all the trustees are on board with the new rent figures and that they feel that their input is important. I could just decide with the vice-chair and the treasurer to expedite matters and agree a way forward with the agent. But I don't want to.

Sometimes it's that feeling of, 'I don't want to', which alerts us to an issue. I can feel a bit of concern from the agent that we are slowing things down but if all the trustees are to accept their responsibilities then they really do need to feel that their opinions matter and that they are indeed governing - not just observing others doing it.

Whilst governance is essentially a rational pursuit we do well to listen to our gut or that small voice in our head - to ensure that we behave in ways that are congruent with our values. Some actions may seem very small but they may actually be very big as they represent the triumph of values over expediency. Ultimately it is all about values.

Updated versions of its model Articles of Association, Constitution and Trust Deed.

The Charity Commission has launched updated versions of its model Articles of Association, Constitution and Trust Deed.

These model documents now have the same provisions for benefits and payments to trustees and those closely connected with them. These provisions are also consistent with the CIO model constitutions.

More information and links to these documents can be found here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Action planning

Strategic planning skills are what we use in our own lives only we tend not to write action plans. For example if we were organising a dinner party (our project) we would need to

  1. Agree with those that we live with that we will do this and perhaps agree who will do what;
  2. Agree on guests and date;
  3. Invite our guests;
  4. Understand, perhaps we will need to ask, what their food requirements and preferences are;
  5. Ask if there are any other issues – will they be brining children, pets or a friend who might be staying with them;
  6. Confirm you guests attendance and needs (3-6 may all be done in one phone call);
  7. Make a menu from recipes (old and new) – perhaps we will do this within an agreed budget or try to use many ingredients that we have already or perhaps finance is not an issue;
  8. Ask ourselves – do we have enough plates, cutlery, napkins, candles and do we want say fresh flowers on the table;
  9. Buy food, drink and perhaps other items as identified above;
  10. Plan the cooking of the food;
  11. Clean the house and lay the table;
  12. Cook the food;
  13. Serve the food.

And this all needs to be done by the appointed time and date.

There are clearly stages which may be linked – so you wouldn’t buy the food without knowing that your guests had accepted the invitation or what they liked to eat/were allergic to.

There are milestones – guests accepting; menu decided; shopping done; food cooked. By setting times and dates for these there is a sense of the project building towards its completion. Depending on your skills and the time available you will probably decide when things need doing e.g. if they are coming on Friday night and you work full time and are out on Thursday night you will probably think, ‘I need to shop on Wednesday evening’ – unless you can shop during your lunch hour.

There are different types of activity which include
  • Decision making;
  • Allocating jobs;
  • Setting a budget;
  • Buying the resources;
  • Planning how the work will be done; and
  • Carrying out the work.

And there are risks – you cannot get a certain ingredient, you forget to take your shopping list, your car breaks down and you can’t do the shopping or you forget to chill the wine! So what actions might we take to mitigate against those risks – many of us already do this – we write lists, we change our recipes slightly or we ask our neighbours, we get our food delivered or sometimes we start planning earlier so that we have time to say go to another shop for an ingredient.

This is the sort of thinking that we do all the time – from our social lives to our work lives to our family lives and to our spiritual lives. When we are doing this planning with others and when it involves significant resources, time and money then we need to write things down and agree to the plan.

The simplest action plan is


By whom

By when

Resources required

How we will know it’s been done

What is to be done

Person’s name


Often this is about money but may be about time.

Evidence of action

More complicated action plans will have milestones – such and such has to be done by a certain time. They may also have categories of actions – say inviting the guest, the food, the drink, the house – and then within that you have a range of actions. We may also add a risk analysis – we would certainly need to do this for a large project.

The thing to remember is that we all have the skills and the knowledge. When working together we need to formalise these things and make sure that we have agreed things and that everyone knows what is expected of them and by when. When you achieve results through good planning it is a real boost and I find that time invested in good planning is repaid several times over.