Sam Thomas is CEO of The Harbour, an independent Bristol-based charity offering free counselling and psychotherapy to people affected by life-threatening illness.
I joined The Harbour as CEO 6 years ago, some 10 years into my voluntary sector career. With a background in fundraising and counselling, I was able to cover many of the skills needed for my role. The organisation had recently sought some external consulting help to create the CEO role itself, and the trustees had benefitted from the opportunity to think about the changes the role brought with it, so the organisation already had some experience of getting outside help.
During my first year as CEO I recognised the financial pressure the organisation was under but I just got my head down and got on with the day to day tasks that needed to be done. In 2013, I heard about the Cranfield Trust and shot off a speculative email asking for more details. I was pleasantly surprised to hear back quickly from the then Project Manager for the South West, who came out to meet me.
Having a Project Manager was very valuable.
I was impressed to see that there was a whole programme of support behind the offering at the Cranfield Trust, which you don’t always see with offers of pro bono help. The Project Manager quickly grasped what we needed and introduced an experienced accountant from the business community, who also had some experience as a charity trustee.
The project was designed to help us understand our costs better and see the organisation through a “business lens” rather than a health and social care sector lens. The regional Project Manager role at Cranfield Trust is very valuable in finding the right volunteer who can bring to the organisation not just the primary skill needed, but lots of valuable additional experience and support.
"The project was designed to help us understand our costs better and see the organisation through a “business lens” rather than a health and social care sector lens."
I was apprehensive about a volunteer coming in from the business community – sometimes it’s hard to open up to someone outside of the organisation, and there’s some fear about how much time this is all going to take out of your already busy day.
Would they be more trouble than they are worth? Would the help and advice be meaningful, or just generic?
However, the volunteer had not only the number crunching skills, but he was also able to make insightful comments about wider governance matters. The process was challenging at times, but in a supportive and positive way, providing food for thought and also reassuring me that we weren’t alone with our issues.
Regular meetings with an outside consultant help to focus you on a topic and make progress, which doesn’t always happen when you try to do it all yourself. An external perspective is also immensely valuable when you are under pressure and may not be able to see the wood for the trees!
From finance to strategic plan - our continuing journey.
We approached Cranfield Trust again 3 years later for assistance with a marketing plan, and through a process of challenge and questioning provided by the Project Manager, we were advised to start with a strategic review of our services and a revision of our Business Plan, which was definitely the right approach to take. A different volunteer this time, with the appropriate skills, guided me through the process.
The volunteer facilitated two half day sessions with a range of staff and trustees to refine the organisation’s vision, mission and values, which was very useful and continues to generate value for the organisation. The cost of such an exercise would have been prohibitive. We now make decisions more strategically ensuring that new contracts and services fit with our mission. Management and the trustees have learned to say “no” if something doesn’t move the organisation in the right direction. We all think more critically about the work we do.
"The volunteer facilitated two half day sessions with a range of staff and trustees to refine the organisation’s vision, mission and values, which was very useful and continues to generate value for the organisation."
A separate Cranfield Trust volunteer is also helping our trustees to review our salary structure – it’s good to know that this very specific expert help is available and that the Board has access to it at no cost.
"Our income has increased by 115% over the past 5 years."
It has been very reassuring in a new leadership role to get the guidance of our Cranfield Trust volunteers, and the support continues as I now have a regular monthly mentoring meeting with a volunteer who is a local business owner, to discuss our business model as we grow and expand our services. Our Cranfield projects have led directly and indirectly to a lot of change for The Harbour – I am currently writing our annual report and the organisation’s income has increased by 115% over the past 5 years, the staff team has doubled in FTE terms in that time, and we have gone from 5 trustees to 8. All of this has given us more space and time to think, and to understand what is in our control and what isn’t.
There's a lot of help out there.
As well as the Cranfield Trust, we have also reached out to other providers of pro bono help, for example, The Media Trust, which we were able to access via a core funding grant from Comic Relief. As a result, we now have regular sessions with a comms mentor who will be advising us on how to deliver our marketing and comms plan. TrustLaw, provided by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has also been very valuable on a couple of legal advice matters. I would recommend any CEO to reach out to organisations providing pro bono support – you have nothing to lose and the access to experts in the relevant field helps bring clarity to issues.
Things to consider - hearing the things you may not want to hear!
The key consideration from my point of view is to avoid wasting time by making sure you and your organisation are ready to make the changes, whatever the outcome of the project. Be strategic, and deal with one project at a time. And you’ve got to be alright with hearing things you might not want to hear! Once the project starts, it’s a challenge to keep the momentum going and see the project through to the end.
So think about how much time you can commit, and get the trustees on board. Having an external expert in can look good on a funding application but it must be a meaningful experience for you, and you need to be clear about your parameters. Make sure you reassure staff too – having a consultant in can be worrying – some staff may fear that redundancies or a new regime is around the corner – so be as transparent as you can be.
It all comes down to the 'Why'.
Finally, bringing in an outsider’s view helps you ask that all important question: Why do we exist? It’s increasingly important for organisations to understand their mission and purpose given the general state of the sector – if you are not clear on your purpose it’s even harder to survive.
We would like to thank Sam very much for taking the time to write this blog for us and for sharing his experience.
(Needless to say, like Sam, we think the right pro bono management consultant.....is definitely not more trouble than they're worth!)
If you would like to find out more about how Cranfield Trust can help your charity, get in touch for an informal discussion or take a look at our services for charities.
About The Harbour
Established in 1992 by psychotherapist Jill Brown, The Harbour (charity number: 1008360) provides free, professional counselling and psychotherapy to people facing emotional and psychological crisis as a result of life-threatening illness. Clients include those suffering from life-threatening illness, loved ones, carers and those who have been bereaved due to illness.