Monday Dec 14, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 8

A summary of lesson 8 is that it is always your fault.

One of the great things about being the acting chair of a board of trustees is that you become the magnet for all negative emotions and frustrations. The fact that you have only been in place for less time that it takes to drink a cup of tea is irrelevant. Anyway, thats what happens and you need to live with it, so what can you do to get through in tact?

  • Forget about the causal chain. Who caused any past or current mess does not matter. You can only worry about fixing it and avoiding it happening again.
  • A propensity for allocating blame often hides some inner guilt. Sit back and be smug in the knowledge that whoever is currently delivering verbal corporal punishment with the underlying suggestion that you were conceived in the doorway of JJB Sports by parents who did not speak to each other before or after, is probably doing so because they have some past mishap which they would rather stay hidden.
  • Most people will tell you that you are great tomorrow
  • A stray f-word normally comes from a position of frustration of those who are passionate and committed to the cause. Let it go.
  • Getting it in the shorts from an external body for something you have no control over (for example a business plan generated 6 months ago, which you had no part in creating, has some flaws and an other body wants to make a point of it) I found OK.

I found working for Sun to be perfect training for some of this. At the occasional customer events, I still need to accept full responsibility for removing the C compiler from Solaris 2.0. I have been at Sun for 12 years and Solaris 2.1 was released about 6 years before I joined. No matter, it is still somehow my fault.

If you are the sort of person who takes on a role of any kind in a charity, you are probably not ruthless with an elephant hide for skin, so it will be one of the least enjoyable parts. Has been for me.

Wednesday Dec 02, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 6

Lesson 6 is that the whole is greater than sum of your partners

This was new to me. The level of interdependency and cooperation between charities makes the total output of good stuff done greater than the sum of the individual capacity of each charity to do good stuff.

Some examples. The C.A.B. takes referrals from housing charities where the client may have been subject to an illegal eviction and need specific advice. The C.A.B. while helping with the advice aspect may refer a client to a mental health charity who needs specific mental health support. There is also a sister C.A.B. about 40 miles away, but in the same county. Working together makes much sense in terms of both geographic coverage, funding bids and supporting each other. There are many other examples of such cooperation of the charity eco-system and the main take away is get to know your partners, what they do and how to avoid duplicating their core competency.

Beyond recognizing this is very important, I don't have much more to add. This is one of the areas I intend to pay attention to and understand much better in the coming months.

How to run a charity : lesson 5

Lesson 5 is that individual contributors would rather be told nothing, than not be told anything!

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)
and add a bit of your own style which in my case is a mix of Rational Process and NLP. I have not had to use my plausible denial face yet which is a bonus, but I have been practicing.

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.

Tuesday Dec 01, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 4

Lesson 4 can be summarized as Governance is God.

About 6 months ago I wrote about the connection between a lack of proper IT governance and a missing value in /etc/system here. For a UK charity good Governance is the goal of the charity. Like me you probably thought it was to help people. Nope, this would be a positive side effect from the point of view of a trustee. If effective administrative and financial governance is not in place the rest of the function of the organization goes south as a consequence. The important people(staff and volunteers) depend on a solid foundation of organizational governance to be able to deliver real value to clients.

As an individual I am quite good at writing a process and getting my head round where process has gone wrong, but the anarchist in me struggles to follow process unless it has some scope for creativity/innovation (probably explains why I get on with Kepner Tregoe Rational Process). This means I can often determine what has wrong and put it right, but don't ask me to enforce the standards in the 1st place. Myers-Briggs gets me off the hook, but means you don't want someone like me as your accountant. In C.A.B. terms this is OK we have an excellent manager and a number of trustee's who has some of the opposite character traits.

It is quite important to understand why Governance is sooooo important and that organization like the Charity Commission exist. If you have got here, you can use Google, so searching for "charity" and "corruption" makes the primary reason quite obvious. There is also a secondary reason where charities are often run by very well meaning people who are very capable in their area of expertise, but many not have sufficient administration and organizational skills to run the charity effectively. A set of standards and processes such as an external audit of the accounts and annual reports is there to help such people. and yes, it does add significant overhead and there is a lot of arse covering. There is also a need for funding bodies be able to prove that their money is being spent as was agreed in the funding application. The C.A.B. has an additional level of supervision where each case is checked by an experienced supervisor and I suggest this is one of the major strength of the implementation of the C.A.B. model.

At a high level the Governance needs of a Charity are similar to that of a Pension Fund Trustee which are very well documented and enforced you will be pleased to hear.

Monday Nov 30, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 3

Lesson 3 is to get a diverse set of capable trustee's behind you.

Again I was a lucky boy in that a dream team of trustee's were already in place

  • Retired HR manager
  • Retired professor of social policy
  • Law professor
  • 2 qualified accountants
  • 2 interoperable councilors
  • Experience mental health worker
  • One I have yet to meet who has not turned up for any meetings

What is probably missing is someone with fund raising experience and some volunteer representation. None had been a trustee for more than 18 months. Indeed the 2 retired trustee's had been working full time-ish[ for which the CAB version of the Order of Lenin should be awarded ] for a year to make up for the lack of a Bureau Manager (in effect acting in that role) which meant they had reduced bandwidth for their role as trustee's and take the long view. This is an important point in that a trustee needs to be such and not act as an additional volunteer management. This has been addressed by the appointment of a very capable indeed manager.

So lesson 3 in summary boils down to

  • Get a trustee board of capable, diverse and appropriate trustees
  • If possible avoid trustee's being drawn into the management of the charity, they loose the oversight function. This is not a rule as sometime it is right to bridge the gap, but aim to make it short term.
  • Have a trustee who is experienced and motivated in the area of fund raising.
  • Ensure they are interoperable
  • If a trustee is any good, they will be already busy and allow for that
  • Need to think about the future and have a pipeline/succession plan in place (which I don't yet).

How to run a charity : lesson 2

Following on from the 1st note, the second lesson I learned was that the press don't have consequences for getting it wrong.

The possibility of closure of a voluntary service such as the Citizens Advice Bureau will be news worthy to local papers who's distribution may cover a county and is measured in 1000's. The Editor is motivated by filling the paper with stories and not missing significant stories, for example they would be embarrassed if a story is run in a regional paper and they missed it.

A story may be incorrect, incomplete, misleading, damage the chances of the charity being funded by potentially embarrassing the funders when negotiations are underway. The press have no consequences for the above and will publish material that they know has gaps.

You all know this, I knew this and working for Sun (not The Sun) and not being press trained, it is drummed into you that you don't talk to the press unless you are trained. There is good reason for this and you need to be aware of it. Even the best meaning reporters can be selective because of space constraints and change the overall meaning of a otherwise well thought out communication. In our case no damage was done, but it could have been.

On the positive side, we did have a local Councilor who was press savvy and had existing connections with the local media.

Also on the very positive side the local paper mounted a very positive campaign, published letters and ran very positive articles, so I can't in any significant way be critical of the local paper in this case, just extract some lessons from the experience.

However, the overall lesson is to get press trained or use a media savvy individual to do all the press communication and be mindful of what motivates a local paper. They can be a very powerful positive force.

Sunday Nov 29, 2009

How to run a charity : lesson 1

For reasons which are not that interesting, I found myself as the acting chair of the Aberystwyth Branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau a month after becoming a trustee. This means I know very little about what the C.A.B. does at an operational level (i.e. giving advice). At the same meeting it was also determined that the Bureau did not have sufficient money to carry on and would close at the end of December 2009. I am pleased to say that won't happen and I am going to document the main lessons I have learned through either my

  • good luck
  • poor judgement and subsequent reflection
  • lack of knowledge and subsequent reflection
  • observation of how other behave, either rationally or irrationally

Why? So if you happen to have a similar opportunity, it might be an easier ride and you may be able to make more of it.

Lesson 1 : Ensure that you have a local elected representative (councilor, etc) who is committed because it is the right thing to do and they believe in the charity. This was the good luck bit on my part, 2 just arrived by magic about the same time I became a trustee. Even better, though from 2 different political parties, they are fully interoperable. They just know how the funding system works and who and how to influence. They have a wide network in the local area and probably an existing press relationship. I suspect there is a flip side here I have not seen where you get an elected representative who has an agenda which is not compatible with that of the charity.

If you don't have a star elected representative on your side, my 1st action would be to find at least one, but no more than 2, making sure they are interoperable.

Stay tuned for further installments.




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