Sarah Mitchell, Chief Executive of Carers Network, a small charity funded by Lloyds Bank Foundation describes her journey from crisis to sustainability.
When your internet’s gone down, your finance worker is off sick and the phone’s ringing off the hook – who has time to think about getting past the crisis and plan ahead? As charity CEOs in a fast-moving world the brutal truth is we just can’t afford to roll from crisis to crisis, we have to face up to the future before it’s upon us.
Carers Network is a small charity (with a turnover of less than £1m) supporting and advising unpaid carers across central London. We rely heavily on local authority contracts for our funding and we had no experience of fundraising from different sources.
When I joined the charity in 2014 we were hit by many of the same problems small charities across the country face: problem suppliers, problem contracts and staff sickness. Everything was urgent. Over the years, I’ve witnessed other small charities responding to urgent demands until they were either subsidising their services from their reserves or veering away from their charitable aims.
The daily fight for survival means that small charities struggle to anticipate the changing needs of their beneficiaries and the changing environment they operate in.
Too often they get left by the wayside.
To prevent this happening to Carers Network, I reviewed what we did well and not so well, and crucially what our beneficiaries needed us to do. I then established a really practical three-year strategy- it was a framework rather than a detailed plan, and it helped me, the trustees and our beneficiaries and staff, agree common priorities and a sense of a shared direction.
This strategy helped me identify new areas of work and development for our charity, including a merger with another local organisation. This both strengthened our service offer and provided a big cash injection into our free reserves.
Unrestricted funding like this is incredibly beneficial to small charities, it gave us the breathing space and flexibility to employ a fundraiser to kick off our first ever fundraising programme.
This meant we could experiment with and understand how different fundraising elements could work for us.
The strategy also helped me to prioritise work on measuring our impact. We secured funding from Big Lottery Fund’s Local Sustainability Fund which has transformed our approach, enabling us for the first time to capture the impact of our work.
Three years later and Carers Network has gone from strength to strength. I shared some of our progress at the launch of the Foundation’s report Facing Forward: How small charities can adapt to survive.
Reflecting on our journey, I can see how this report and the tools it presents would have been a really useful tool for any Chief Exec. So if you haven’t already, have a read and in the meantime here are my top tips for small charities who are ready to face forward in 2017:
Having a framework plan/strategy is essential. Facing Forward includes some great questions to ask and details planning and analysis tools to help assess organisational strengths and weaknesses.
Lifting my head from the day to day responsibilities was crucial to our development. The prompt questions in the report could kick off discussions with trustees about possible opportunities and pitfalls ahead
As CEOs we must be alive to new ways of delivering, to mergers and collaborations and to the clues in our beneficiaries’ behaviour. Listening and observing and being open minded about how to get the best for the people your charity supports is vital.
A sense of humour!
I always tell my team that if you don’t like change then the charity sector is not the place for you. They think I’m joking. But our work is all about change, change for the better, and it’s up to us to seek out new opportunities and to think positive for the sake of our teams and our beneficiaries. Having a thick skin and a good sense of humour is absolutely essential!
Sarah Mitchell is Chief Executive of Carers Network.
You can follow her on twitter: @s_j_mitchell