Alan’s consultancy services include:

Checklists and resources

Some checklists and articles on different aspects of managing voluntary organisations.

Ten questions to see if your organisation's governance needs reviewing and improving.

  1. Everyone is pointing in different directions. There is no clear sense of direction. The organisation lurches from issue to issue. People have different ideas about what is important.
  2. No one is quite sure what we are for. It lacks a unity of purpose. Keeping going and surviving from year to year isn’t enough.
  3. The Chief Executive is rarely ever challenged. Things go through with little real challenge or constructive debate.
  4. It’s hard to see what the board achieves. What value or difference do board meetings make?
  5. The Board is of ornamental value. The board is stuck in a routine. It meets because it is required to do so. Discussions at committee meetings are predictable.
  6. The board just rubber stamps. Most of the work is about approving things that have already happened.
  7. The board’s membership is stale. It is hard to recruit new people. Key interests or skills are missing.
  8. The board is out of touch. The board lacks real connection with the work of the organisation. Members don’t have much understanding of the context that the organisation is working in.
  9. Strategy is just a paper document. Every so often a strategy or business plan is produced and agreed to. It then sits on the shelf and is rarely ever referred to.
  10. The board gets involved in the wrong issues. The committee micro manages issues. It gets too involved in detail and interferes. Delegation is confused.

Contact me to discuss how a governance review or developmental work might help to strengthen your board.


Strategy in hard times

Anyone can produce a brilliant plan in good times. Big and bold visions, lots of new ideas and plans to expand, develop and boldly go… . It is different in hard times; ever increasing demand, downward income, austerity, increased competition and short term insecurity all make the going tough. Survival feels to be just about enough. Perhaps, the biggest challenge is retaining a sense of organisational and personal confidence.

The Italian political writer, Antonio Gramsci famously advocated for “Pessimism of the intellect – optimism of the will”. Pessimism of the intellect calls for tough and rational analysis of your current position and future prospects, questioning assumptions and challenging the status quo. Optimism of the will means having the confidence and courage to attempt difficult things and be willing to stand out. Probably not a bad maxim for running a voluntary organisation.

In tough times our organisations need to have a very clear sense of their purpose, what our values are and what we want to achieve in the short to medium term. The alternative is to bounce between reacting to events, occasional crisis management and chasing any funding pot that might keep things going. One experienced voluntary sector manager described her organisation’s approach ‘If we have any kind of strategy its ‘that something will turn up’, but, we can’t continue just drifting from issue to issue’.

Here are eight approaches that organisations can use to develop a useful strategy that makes the case for the organisation and gives a clear focus to help to steer through fast changing waters:

  1. Start at the end. Focus on the outcomes we want to achieve. Work out what you want to achieve or change over the next few years. Describe the difference you will make for your users or community. How will you know that you have been successful? Do all of out activities contribute to our outcomes? Outcomes that are relevant, challenging and also realistic can give bring an organisation together and help people see that they are making real progress.
  2. What’s on the horizon? We can be so involved in running our organisation that we don’t see changes in community needs or profile or bigger changes that could impact on what we do. Good strategy is about being one step ahead of the game. We need to commit time to spotting trends and possible changes that are in the pipeline and think through how might we respond. How can we turn threats into opportunities?
  3. Work out what is core. It is easy to lose our focus and over spread the organisation. Sometimes we take on projects and activities that only vaguely relate to our purpose. It is useful to agree what is the organisation’s core purpose and role and to check that all activities fit with this.
  4. Don’t assume people understand you. Spend time testing and improving how you explain what you do and what you want to achieve. How does your work fit within other people’s strategies? What value do you add?
  5. Collaborate. In tough times there is a temptation to draw in and become defensive. How can we work with other similar organisations that support our vision and values? How can we turn potential competition into fruitful collaboration?
  6. Look at the business model. How can we diversify our income base and reduce our dependency on one or two income streams? Do we need to rethink our approach to funding and income development?
  7. Build alliances. Organisations need to build up a strong network of supporters, partners and people who will speak up for it in tough times. Who can we bring on side?
  8. Learn to say ‘no’. Trustees and managers need to be able to walk away from under costed contracts or avoid being ‘guilt tripped’ into sustaining activities without proper support. Recognising that an activity has reached its end and being able to bring it to a positive end is a key strategic task.

In the times that we operate in time spent working on our strategic future is not a luxury. Strategy is much more than producing a three year plan. It needs to involve people throughout the organisation and challenge our thinking. It has a key part to play in building our resilience.


Collaborative Working

Getting voluntary organisations to work together always seems like a good idea. The idea of sharing resources, not duplicating effort and pulling together does have a certain logic, but is often fraught with difficulties.

Increasingly, organisations are pushed into collaboration. Linking up with other is seen as a way of surviving as funding becomes tougher and organisations struggle to remain viable. Cooperating together is seen as a better option than competition. Funders and commissioners push for greater collaboration. The public sector says it is keen on ‘partnerships’ – described by one civil servant as “the temporary suspension of mutual hostility in order to get hold of funding”.

Some commissioners sometimes prefer to deal with bigger agencies and often claim that “there are too many organisations” and cling to a view that collaborating might stop duplication and lead to better value for money. It is odd that some commissioners complain of having too many organisations and at the same time talk about the need to have a choice of providers in the market.

In our new book, Collaborative Working, we look at what’s driving collaboration, describe the different models and options available, the blocks to be navigated and through case studies show how to make it work in the organisation’s short and longer term interest.

In researching the book we talked to a range of voluntary sector managers involved in successful and not so successful collaboration initiatives. We drew six key points:

  1. There are many different ways to collaborate. Often as soon as working together is raised people assume it will lead into a merger. A merger is just one option. The book looks at a range of alternatives from alliances, joint ventures, sub contracting, consortiums and group structures as well as mergers. Some are short term (such as a campaigning alliance between organisations) while others involve permanent structural change.
  2. Keep your purpose and values central. A critical question is how will collaboration enable us to be in a stronger position to deliver our purpose. Moving to collaborate should be more than a defensive manoeuvre.
  3. Collaboration can cause anxiety. Often the idea of collaborating creates uncertainty, fear of change and hostility. Sometimes this is driven by a fear of losing local identity and focus or being swallowed up into a bigger organisation. Managers need to see collaboration as significant change project that needs planning and in particular, work to ensure that people understand the bigger picture, what’s driving it and the process for bringing it about.
  4. The process is key. Collaboration is rarely a ‘quick fix’. Putting it together takes time. Trustees have a key role in overseeing the process and making sure that it will deliver real benefits.
  5. Plan the journey. There’s a danger that detailed issues such as structures, constitutions, employment issue and due diligence can dominate and derail the process. All of these issues need to be planned for and organised in a way that does not lose sight of the bigger picture of what benefits we hope to achieve.
  6. Culture is key. All too often collaborative venture fail because working practices, style and the informal rules that make up an organisation’s culture fail to adapt or open up to new partners. Often ‘our way is best” or ‘our way the only way’ blocks change. Organisational leaders need to be committed to building cultures that support collaboration and are open to change.

Collaboration is unlikely to go away. It can be an opportunity to move to a different level, retain independence and remain viable.

© 2016 Alan Lawrie - The Assembly, 3rd Floor, Virginia House 5-7 Great Ancoats St Manchester, M4 5AD