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A business-like approach to governance has helped one charity reinforce its caring values

Published June 2018

“Charity”, “voluntary”, “nonprofit”: the labels given to the third sector define its identity as distinct from both the public and private sectors. But crucially, these words lend an air of cosiness, warmth and selfless good works.

While charities focus on helping, supporting and caring, they can neglect the practical need to maintain effective and profitable business practices. “It’s about balancing the need to be a value-based charity with the need to apply some fairly keen commercial principles,” says Robin Bush, CEO of Autism Together, a charity based in Merseyside in the north west of England that offers specialist support services to people with autism and their families.

The charity, which supports over 450 adults on a daily basis, and employs around 1,000 staff, was founded in 1968 as the Wirral Autistic Society. By 2013, when Bush joined, it was facing a number of challenges. The 2008 financial crash meant that social-care funding cuts were on the way; there was a pensions deficit to contend with; and a fairly unplanned expansion of the charity’s services, particularly assisted living services, had led to strain on the organization’s infrastructure.

So how has Autism Together’s new CEO harnessed sound business principles to turn around the fortunes of this caring organization?

Find opportunity in a challenge

Around the time Bush was appointed, Autism Together’s board had to make a difficult decision upon whether to merge with another, larger charity. When the nays won by one vote, those who had been in favour felt they had to move on, which opened up an opportunity to recruit some new blood.

Bush embraced this chance, and says, “Over the past four years the structure of the board has been focused on people with appropriate skills for running what is effectively a modern-day business, with one eye firmly fixed on values, rather than a charitable-values organization that didn’t really have much focus on commercial principles.”

“We have re-energized the board table with people who bring skills from a variety of disciplines — accountants, solicitors, property managers. And it’s very well chaired too — Hilary Dobson is from an academic background but is good at getting people to ask the right questions, and asking the right ones herself.”

Recruit professionally at board level

Autism Together recruits its trustees through a structured, formal process. The leadership team places advertisements in newspapers (and more recently on LinkedIn too), holds interviews, then discusses candidates with the remuneration committee.

A six-month “get to know us, get to know you” period allows new trustees to attend a number of board meetings and sub-committees as observers, and “if they think they still want to be part of the trustee body and if we think they’re still appropriate, then we recommend them at our AGM,” says Bush. “It’s try before you buy.”

Bring in the experts

Another good business practice is to request outside expertise when needed. When Bush became CEO in 2013, Autism Together commissioned ACEVO to do a full governance review.

“ACEVO interviewed the whole trustee body, the leadership team; they reviewed the committee structures, identified the skills of the trustees to see whether there were any gaps and then they made recommendations on their findings,” Bush says.

“These governance reviews are incredibly useful I think, just to stop habits forming that perhaps are not helpful, and to encourage the good habits that help us to develop.”

Bush plans to book in another review next year.

Define your core values

Bush saw a need to focus — he needed to take in hand a charity that, in its efforts to be everything to everyone, had built up an unmanageable list of aims. He took things back to basics.

“One of the first things we had to do was look at what we were doing well, and what we weren’t doing so well,” he says. “Trying to get back to what were the fundamental drivers for our organization.”

“So we looked at what our core values were. We decided to redefine them with the whole staff team. We had about 40 or 50 different values — they all looked different depending on what document you read. And of course you can’t work to that many. So we stripped those right back down to four key principles, to help us define Autism Together’s main objective.”

“The key value statements that now underpin our approach to the work we do as an organisation, and as individuals, are: we promote positive communication; everything we do is person-centred; we are an organisation that promotes learning; and we are respectful”

Make HR more inclusive

The team effort involved in this exercise marks out another aspect of any truly successful business — the importance of supporting the staff body to feel included, fulfilled and therefore motivated to further the aims of their workplace.

The charity had over time developed a very “them and us” management culture, says Bush. “If we are a caring organization, which we are, we need to care for everybody equally. That means ensuring your workforce feel that they’re not just cogs in a machine but that they inform the direction of travel. And it’s the same with the service-user population, family, friends and everyone else involved.”

“We asked ourselves: how do we supervise staff, how do staff communicate with the organization, how does it communicate with them? It’s a huge piece of work — I’m not sure we’re all the way there yet, but we’re improving all the time,” he says.

Staff benefits and discounts have been introduced, along with a new information management system that includes HR and staff training databases and has automated many of the workflows and improved efficiency.

Lessons learned

How would Bush advise other charities that might have lost their way?

  • “Ensure that you have the right people in the right places across your organization — at both board and leadership levels.”
  • “Always be prepared to ask difficult questions, and be prepared to be asked the difficult questions. We’re only as good as the information we seek out, so if you don’t go looking for that information you’re not going to have enough to work with.”
  • “Communication, communication, communication. When you think you’ve communicated enough, then you need to communicate some more.”

Autism Together 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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