For those who have been involved in the early stages of a charity, or a commercial company for that matter, the first months and years can be both extremely challenging and very rewarding. Creating something from nothing requires vision, energy, passion and commitment. It’s a risky time for all concerned but the risk is managed, accepted and embraced as a natural consequence of start-up.
As our venture passes into what I’ve termed ‘adolescence’ we learn to manage our resources and build long term capability. When things are going well we deliver growth, often reflected in financial figures but also in the impact that our work is having in our target area. A charity can still be ‘growing’ without increasing its monetary turnover.
During this phase the work is stimulating; our team are pushing beyond their comfort zone to learn new things and often having fun. Risk is managed. It is recognised that continuous growth and development requires us to be prepared to change; to innovate; not to be stuck in the past. All change brings an element of risk and in this healthy phase we embrace the risk and enjoy the benefits.
Spin forward with me to a time when our organisation has reached a plateau. This may be reflected financially in flat-lined income; it may be reflected in the observed impact of our work. It may be reflected in management processes that have become too internally focused. It may be reflected in the mind sets of the leadership team if they become risk averse.
Many organisations reach this plateau. Some break through the barriers to enter a new phase of growth, a new ‘S’ curve. Many, however, continue on the plateau often slowly becoming less relevant. A few others may eventually disappear.
So where is your organisation on the curve? If you are on a plateau, what do you need to do to enter a new phase of growth? How could you deliver greater impact with the same or even reduced financial resources?”
What are your strategies for breakthrough?
Fresh insight – board review
After we’ve been working in an organisation for a year or two it can be easy to accept ways of working without challenging why things are as they are. At this time we may all benefit from a fresh pair of eyes to provide the insight we need to stimulate learning and to move the organisation forward.
That’s why the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators suggests organisations should consider an externally facilitated review of the board’s performance every 3 years
A robust review of your governance and board performance will address both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ aspects of the way your board and senior executive operate. Striking a balance between reflecting back and advising the trustees and executive on future priorities, to ensure good governance and improve the performance of the board.
Fresh ways of working – process review
At the heart of all delivery and support operations are the ‘processes’ that our people operate. It is often the case that many of the critical processes within an organisation have developed over time, evolving rather than being designed.
As our environment changes, these processes will also need to change to avoid a situation where they are no longer fit for purpose. When processes are not as they should this can often be reflected in comments heard from employees such as: “why can’t department ‘x’ give me what I need to do my job?” or “why have we recruited another 3 people when we’re duplicating work between fund raising and business development?” or “we knew what needed to be done months ago, so why can’t we make a decision and get on with it?”
Each of these comments is a symptom of waste.
A process review will highlight activities that are duplicated, activities that add little or no value to your mission and activities that are so variable that they result in additional effort downstream to correct errors that are essentially a waste of time, resources and money.
How effective is your organisation at using the resources available to meet its mission?
Fresh faces – new trustees
Change the team! Bringing in fresh faces to the board of trustees may provide the energy needed for breakthrough. New skills, enhancing existing skills or simply providing a fresh perspective may help to unlock the potential of your organisation to move beyond the plateau.
Recognising the need for new faces is one thing, finding the right person is quite another. Our experience working with many trustee boards has taught us that a broad search is essential, as the strength of the team after all, is, to be found in the differences between team members and not the similarities.
The first step will be to complete an audit of the existing board: what skills and experiences do we need to be successful? What skills and experiences do we currently have? Where are the gaps? Will the recruitment of a new trustee be part of the way in which we close the gap?
Every situation is different and there are no simple solutions to increasing the impact your charity delivers. However, being aware that your organisation may be nearing a plateau can help to shape your priorities. Addressing one or more of the breakthrough strategies may help to make the next step forward, and secure your own legacy: a better charity, not just a safe charity.