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.