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 ...