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Taking tough decisions can lead to dramatic improvement

Published May 2018

It’s a common enough story, sadly: a charity starts off on the right foot with a substantial monetary gift, but over time, poor financial management leads to dwindling funds, low morale and lackluster services.

This was the situation faced by Nanette Mellor, CEO of The Brain Charity — formerly Neurosupport — when she joined the organization in 2014: “I applied for the job and they said we’d love you to come for interview, and could your presentation be on how you’re going to get us out of the financial hole we’re in,” says Mellor.

The charity, which offers emotional support, practical help and social activities to anyone with a neurological condition and to their family, friends and carers, had been cash-rich at its inception in 1993. It was given the building it operates from, in Liverpool, in the north west of England, and £1 million — a combination of a contribution from Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) and a community grant from the city council. The money was invested, but little else was done to raise new funds through the years, and by the time she arrived, says Mellor, “The building was empty and had a strange clinical feel to it. It felt quite hollow. There was no innovation and no participation from the service users.”

So how did the charity take itself from a position where it had estate agents preparing to put the building up for sale — to one, just three years later, where its income had doubled and it could offer a wide range of new services to its users?

Confidence in cutting back

Mellor joined an organization that was overspending and underperforming, and she embarked on a bold strategy to tackle the problem. Having made the tough decision to cut back on staff, she then took the even tougher one to reduce services in the short term, investing in fundraising and marketing instead.

“It was a cultural shift,” she says, “from relying on cash that had always been there, to realizing we’ve got to make money for ourselves now.” The pruning exercise was one that she felt was needed in order for the charity to grow, but, “I didn’t know how people were going to take it — we had to strip our services right back, and that’s the kind of decision that can really leave you open to criticism. It was pretty horrible, but we all saw the light at the end of the tunnel within the first few months of the changes.”

Her advice to other chief executives is that you need to be prepared to be unpopular to get things done: “I’d say the last thing you need to think about is being liked by anybody. Because if you start to worry about trying to please everybody, then you’re going to start to make the wrong decisions.”

Defining the brand

If you want people to give you money, they need to know who you are, says Mellor. And in this case, this meant a rebrand was needed. She felt that the charity’s rather medical-sounding former name, Neurosupport, was not getting the message across. So she changed it.

A PR and marketing company was brought in to lead the rebrand: “It was the only real bit of money I spent during that period,” says Mellor, “but knew if I got the name and logo right it would pay dividends going forward.” The name, strapline, logo and a set of key messages were all pulled together and the charity held a relaunch party at their centre in central Liverpool.

Now, she says, “everyone understands what The Brain Charity does, because it does what it says on the tin.”

Rebranding was a challenge, but one that has really paid off: “Straight away we got this Google-friendly name, and the donations started to come in. We receive phone calls now from people wanting to run the London marathon for us, or to let us know that a relative has died and that they want the funeral money to come to the charity. The donations are going up every month, which is brilliant.”

Getting digital

Once the charity had more clearly defined its identity, it was time to get its message out to a wider audience, and to create a more active community. To do this, Mellor decided to place a greater focus on digital. She created a new role for a digital communications officer, began building a user-friendly website and started to place much more emphasis on social media. The Brain Charity now has an engaged Facebook audience and 13,000 followers on Twitter.

“Before, social media was considered as secondary to what we were doing,” she says. “But actually if people can see you on these forums, that can help them in lots of different ways.”

Utilizing the skills at your disposal

When funds are tight, it pays to use the human resources that are right under your nose, so take a closer look at what you’ve got, says Mellor.

“Around 80 per cent of our volunteers and about 60-70 per cent of our staff have a neurological condition. And when I started, the staff member who’s now our digital communications officer was actually the cleaner. He’s an Oxford graduate with a serious condition that meant he wasn’t able to leave his home for over 10 years. He used technology as a form of communication with the outside world, so he’s self-taught and a proper guru.”

“I noticed that he was the go-to person for any issues people were having with IT and I could see that he was managing to fix some really complex problems. At first I offered him a small increase in hours so that he had more time to do these kind of tasks, and I quickly realised he had a real talent in that area — I created the digital communications officer role with him in mind. He’s perfect for the job and I am extremely proud to have him on my team.”

“The building was full of people with neurological conditions but all with talents and skills, and when we didn’t have money right at the start, utilizing all that helped us on our way.”

When you promote participation within your organization, foster a purposeful connection and get as many people as possible involved in the decision-making process, it’s a powerful force for progress, says Mellor.

“We describe ourselves as a community — we all get together, we ask what are the key problems in your life, how can we best try to tackle them? And then we pull the plans together. And I think that sense of ownership is the other big change. If people feel like they own something, it’s theirs to look after. They give their talents and their skills and all of a sudden you’ve got so much more capacity than you had before.”

Building a brilliant board

Mellor points out that as a CEO proposing a major operational overhaul, it was incredibly important to have the support of her board: “They wrote a letter to the staff saying there are going to be some changes, the board know all about it and we are fully behind Nanette. To have that kind of weight behind my restructure was key.”

Though she was the one who put together the charity’s new strategy, it was a change at board level that kick-started the regeneration, when newly appointed trustees recognized the dire position the charity was in and decided to tackle it.

It’s a reminder of how crucial it is to build a talented and dynamic board, and, in fact, that it might not on the surface look quite how you expect: “You know they’re not this really young group of people either,” says Mellor of her board. “Many of our board members are retired, but very modern thinkers. And people who are absolutely committed to the community.”

Taking risks

If there’s one piece of advice that Mellor would give, it’s that playing it safe gets you nowhere: “We’re in such a difficult environment at the moment, and if you just sit still the likelihood is that sooner or later you’re going to lose a big chunk of funding. You need to take risks.”

“One of the things we’re looking into is developing virtual-reality based services, and some people are a bit scared of it, but the research about what it can do for our brains is incredible. It’s a new, innovative piece of work, and the board are absolutely up for it — it should be us, it should be a charity, because if we don’t do it then one of the big private companies will.”

The Brain Charity was among the nominees for the Managing Turnaround category of the Charity Governance Awards 2018, which was organized by The Clothworkers’ Company.



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