Feature: The skills agenda

As torrents of white water cascade down the treacherous, stepped waterfall, one man extends his arm to help another colleague scale the slippery rocks and across the watercourse in safety. Is this a scene from an action movie? No, this is the reality of a training course on which volunteers from the National Association of Clubs for Young People are sent to learn teamwork and training skills.

The training takes place in the Lake District National Park and is run by Brathay, a youth charity established to develop the potential of young people and the skills of those who work with them. Participants are given the opportunity to explore the theory and practice of leadership as part of a supportive group, through the use of outdoor activities, drama and creative tasks. This is combined with emerging learning processes such as neuro-linguistic programming, which teaches you how to ‘read’ people by, for example, their pitch of voice or body language to acquire rounded team leadership skills.

“We have worked with Clubs for Young People for years, running a leadership course for its young people on a consultancy basis to develop in-house leadership training. We have also run tailor-made events for its trainers for three years,” says Brathay team leader Sue Cox.

Training is often vital in order to get the best out of an organisation’s people so that it can deliver on its objectives. Yet with resources in the voluntary sector generally tight, training is frequently sacrificed or overlooked as money is diverted to meet other priorities.

In some quarters, concerns run deep that charities are not paying enough attention to staff training and development. In a speech delivered in May this year, Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: “Voluntary and community sector organisations need to become more proactive about developing the skills of their existing staff.”

The UK Voluntary Sector Training Courses Review, a 2002 study researched and published by training provider and organiser of Charityfair, the Directory of Social Change, said the level of training has often “fluctuated and has been in crisis”. The research, which sampled almost 1,000 voluntary sector organisations, found that only 44 per cent had a training policy in place. When it comes to choosing training, its relevance, cost and the reputation of the training provider all played an equal part in the decision-making process.

Other interesting findings were that 79 per cent of organisations had a training budget, and that at 60 per cent of organisations, there was someone with a responsibility for training. A total of 64 per cent offered in-house training – rising to 79 per cent among larger organisations with an annual turnover above £1m. On average, respondents attended two to three training days a year.

Late July this year finally saw the publication of Improving Our Skills, a skills strategy for the voluntary and community sector that was commissioned by the Active Community Unit at the Home Office and developed by the Voluntary Sector National Training Organisation. Clearly this is a hot issue at present.

So where is it that many charities fall down when it comes to training? David Parker, head of accreditation and training at the Institute of Fundraising, feels it is not always a lack of budget. “They can invest quite a lot in training but sometimes investments aren’t well chosen. Charities often lack the expertise to identify what they really need. There’s an element of taking what’s on offer because they put most of their investment into delivering services,” he argues.

Many charities are deluged with marketing brochures from training companies that promote a series of open courses. Often, courses such as these will be appropriate, but it is important for charities to be specific about the training they require, and not to compromise by booking courses that do not fit the bill exactly.

Interchange, a not-for-profit training provider to the voluntary sector, finds there is roughly equal demand for its open courses and tailored in-house training. However, Karen Tidsall, training and development manager, notes that demand for in-house courses is rising steadily. “That may be an indication that training buyers want something attuned and bespoke to their organisation,” she says.

Helen Rice, head of consultancy and training services at Community Matters, the nationwide federation for community groups, thinks this is a good thing. “I believe very strongly in tailor-made services,” she says. “Organisations tend to buy training off the shelf and it may not give them the results they are looking for.”

Bespoke training is potentially more expensive than open courses. But this is not necessarily true on every occasion. For example, a tailored course can conceivably give a delegate the knowledge and skills that they require in a far shorter time than an open course, which may contain programme elements that are simply not useful or relevant for every participant.

Moreover, some training providers are happy to conduct tailor-made training at the client’s premises, saving the charity travel costs. This has the added advantage of partially mollifying line managers who do not want staff out of the office all day.

Training of this kind need not cost the earth. Community Matters, for instance, says it charges between £200-£600 per day, depending on the size of the organisation. This fee is the total cost per day – not per person, per day. A number of training providers – not only those that have charitable status themselves – offer reduced training rates to voluntary organisations; some, like Community Matters, on a sliding scale dependent on the client’s size, so it pays to shop around.

The Broadoak and Smallshaw Community Association registered on the Running Community Buildings Course, which was designed by Community Matters and accredited by the National Open College Network. They wanted to receive training that would maximise opportunities arising through the Single Regeneration Budget to refurbish their building, a former infants school, to allow local people and groups to take advantage of locally delivered education, training and community opportunities.

The association has established four sections: an indoor bowling club, Young at Heart (for the over-50s), aerobics and a junior youth club. The centre has become well used by the local community for parties such as children’s birthdays and weddings, and several organisations rent the accommodation. Surestart organises a crèche, healthy eating classes and a parents’ group; Jobmatch provides employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities and Birchcroft Training offers a day centre for people with learning difficulties.

Other users of the building include: Town Patrollers, Tameside College, the local authority’s senior youth workers, a councillor’s surgery, soroptomists; Tae-Kwon-Do, and Slimming World. The health authority also holds clinics there. One area where a lot of voluntary organisations fall down, Rice believes, is in neglecting to allocate any money to train trustees. When bids for funding are drawn up, trustee training is often overlooked.

Dave Leighton, development officer for homelessness charity Emmaus, says training can be a challenge for organisations, such as his own, which have a federal structure. “How do you get the individual charities to recognise their own needs and buy into what the federation centre uses? There’s a challenge to market the services we provide. As an outside body we are aware of certain training needs that people within charities don’t immediately recognise.”

The attitude of each local community organisation’s trustees is critical. “If they are pro-training they will make all the time in the world available and find a way to resource it,” Leighton adds.

Leighton is candid in conceding that evaluation of training impact and effectiveness is carried out only “sporadically”. “We’re not as efficient in that area as we could be,” he says. “We’ve got some distance to go and because of the federal structure we have to encourage and coax rather than lay down the law.”

Euan Eddie, director of programmes for the National Association of Clubs for Young People, responds along the same lines. “We do what we can. Like most parts of the voluntary sector, the spirit is willing but the resources don’t always run to it,” he says.

The association does, however, have a member of staff participate in its Brathay courses to keep an eye on things.

In truth, the fact that Emmaus and the National Association of Clubs for Young People evaluate their training at all puts them ahead of the curve compared with many voluntary organisations. Best practice is to tie training evaluation into the organisation’s business plan and staff appraisals. In this way its effectiveness can be enhanced. Reputable training providers also tend to follow up after course completion to check that training has proved satisfactory and what has been learned is being implemented. Make sure you agree with the training provider that this will happen before booking a course.

It is important to bear in mind that while training exists to boost the skills an organisation has at its disposal, individuals view it as intrinsic to career development. The Directory of Social Change study found that while there would always be a place for non-accredited courses, increasingly trainees wanted accreditation as an option to add weight to their CV.

Training needs to be relevant, impact positively on the running of an organisation or its ability to meets its goals, and offer value for money. If these three criteria are kept in mind and adhered to, there is no reason for a charity to feel it is frittering money away. Quite the opposite – it is making an investment for its future and the future of those it serves.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus