How to run a charity : lesson 5
By clive on Dec 02, 2009
By nothing I mean you communicate that either you have nothing to tell them or that you can't tell them what you would like to tell them, but will tell them something as soon as you are in a position to. The worst possible inaction is not to say anything.
Any charity needs its individual contributors. If they are volunteers they have chosen to spend their time helping others, rather than gardening, having morning coffee with their friends, hanging around in street corners or working for an other charity. They are the reason why charities represent such good value for money for funders. They also are motivated for the right reasons. If they are staff, they are probably work in this area out of choice for the work and the postive impact on others, rather than pay and promotion prospects. Again, they are probably there for the right set of reasons. The C.A.B. in Aberystwyth has a volunteer who has been with the Bureau for 24 years, that is real commitment and in my book they deserve to know what is going on as far as practical.
When it was determined that it was possible that the Bureau was going to shut at the end of December 2009, I called an all hands meeting of the volunteers and staff. It was quite comical as I turned up to the meeting and was asked who I had an appointment to see as none of the individual contributors knew who I was. At that point I had been a Trustee for 4 weeks and Chair for 3 days. I told them what the situation was and why (legal duty, etc), what plans we(Trustees) had to find funding to remain open and answered questions. One of the positive side effects I did not expect was a level of innovation to go out and raise the public profile through pestering local politicians, obtaining letters of support (over 400) and writing to the local paper. More important was that they kept on doing what they were doing in terms of seeing clients in need and giving good quality, timely advice.
Ideally, I would have liked to communicated on a more frequent basis. Working with uncertainty is never productive (sound familiar ???), but the need to cross i's and dot t's means I had to keep some information back for longer than I wouild have liked and also to be less committal and use more caveats than I would have preferred. The Board of Trustee's also practice collective decision making and as new kids in the chair(even if the chair was potentially not going ot be there in 6 weeks time) I was keen not to overstep the mark in delegated decision making which may not have been delegated.
This is probably one area where no having direct management experience was an advantage or at least no disadvantage. I can just about manage myself, my two under 6 terrorists and the dog. Given my role in Sun, management(or is it really facilitation??) of customer situations has become 2nd nature. I also do the weekend duty manager role every 6 or so weeks which can be entertaining, but I don't and never have (and have no intention ever) to manage people in a direct reporting sense. So what do you do? You draw on
- The type of communication you would like to have
- Model the instances (and there have been many in my 12 years at Sun) where communication was effective and appropriate
- Avoid the instances where communications has been a joke (has happened at Sun, but I drew more on external experience)
There is always a "loose canon" concern where an individual driven by their passion for the cause makes public comment which is awkward or embarrassing in some way. It is a risk, but I took the view that most people know the boundaries and that if they are trusted to deal with potentially vunerable people, they can be trusted to act responsibly with information about the future of a organization they care about. We did suggest that it should be left to the Bureau Manager, our fine regional councillor or myself to make any statements about the Bureau future to the press, but volunteers and staff were free to write letters to the editor in a personal capacity. So far my experince has been that a strategy of telling the staff and volunteers what you can, when you can, has been optimal.
Apologies for use of I.T. industry terms such as individual contributor or all hands, makes it sound a bit inhuman.