The art of restructuring

Making significant changes to an organisation is fraught with problems. Here we ask three experts for their advice

As the financial picture for the charity sector has become more difficult in recent years, so major restructures have become more common occurrences.

For example, in June, National Trust Scotland released details on a wide-ranging restructure to achieve cost savings of £4m a year. It is estimated that this restructure will put 142 jobs at risk, roughly a quarter of the charity's workforce. Significant negative media coverage ensued.

But major restructures can bring major benefits and, ultimately, might be the difference between a charity continuing to serve its beneficiaries or going under. Here, we ask three experts about how to achieve a successful reorganisation of a charity.

1 You need to have accurate financial data

Debbie Lamb, the development manager at the local infrastructure body Locality, which provides advice to charities that are restructuring, says that poor data can sometimes feed into an "optimism bias", whereby people believe their problems are not as bad as they actually are. "Quite often people want to believe the situation is better than it really is," she says. "They might underestimate their costs and overestimate their income."

2 Make the case for change

It is crucial to explain to staff and stakeholders the underlying reasons behind a proposed restructure in a clear and transparent way. Philip Goodwin, chief executive of the international volunteering charity VSO, which in 2015 carried out a major restructure that brought about savings of £4.3m a year, says: "We were open about the challenges we faced and the significant changes needed to overcome them. This was done even before we knew exactly what change would look like."

As a result, Goodwin says, the charity managed to maintain staff confidence in the charity's strategy and leadership despite the upheaval and job losses involved in a major restructure.

3 Speed is of the essence

Big changes to an organisation inevitably cause significant disruption, so any changes should be planned beforehand and quickly executed to minimise the impact on a charity's work. Richard Litchfield, chief executive of Eastside Primetimers, which advises charities about transformation projects, says: "It is not the restructure itself that's the problem, but the amount of time spent on it and it preventing key people doing their day-to-day jobs."

The solutions, Litchfield says, can include bringing in additional staff and advisers on a temporary basis to ensure the charity's work is not neglected while a restructure takes place.

4 Keep communicating

Goodwin says that, in VSO's case, the charity made it clear it was "engaging, not consulting", and actively sought staff participation in developing a new organisational structure.

Litchfield says: "If organisations are trying to involve staff as much as possible in shaping the direction of their own departments, that starts to give people buy-in and makes them feel they have a stake in the future of the organisation."

5 Don't forget to review

It's vital to understand how effective the restructure has been, especially when measured against its original aims. Litchfield says: "I'm a big fan of boards looking back at the original business case that was driving the restructure and just then saying 'have we achieved what we set out to achieve? Has the business case been realised? If it was about saving money, have we saved that money?' It is very easy to not do that and just move on quickly because so much is going on. But if you do that review, it will really help future decision-making in the organisation."

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