Goodbye to all that

John Burnell, veteran Third Sector columnist and HR guru, looks back over his career working with charities as he prepares for retirement

John Burnell
John Burnell

I’d been in HR for many years, first in local government, then as personnel director for a couple of the large London housing trusts. So I wasn’t exactly new to it, but I came to realise that while big voluntary bodies like housing providers, with their hundreds of staff, could afford their own HR departments, that wasn’t a luxury available to the vast majority of smaller charities, typically with 20 or even fewer employees. Add that to my wife’s experience as chief executive of several charities and her pointing out a major gap in provision, and Personnel Solutions was born.

My experience of the sector has been largely with those smaller charities – although however much publicity you try to generate, it’s a difficult market because many organisations that need you most haven’t got the resources to get to know about you. I did a quick check the other day and reckon that since I started in December 2004, I’ve worked with 291 different voluntary organisations and trained people from countless others. I know it sounds like a bit of a cliché, but every one of them really has been different.

Of course, there were common threads. Everyone needs to have a basic understanding of employment law and, more importantly, a modicum of common sense when dealing with staffing issues. Unless you’re very lucky, your charity is always going to be looking for more funds, so it’s very rare that third sector employers can afford generous conditions. And there’s the commitment of staff to what the charity is about – such dedication is rare outside the voluntary sector.

But what differentiates charities more than anything else in my view is that each has a unique culture. Get that wrong, whether as a manager or adviser, and you’re storing up big trouble. That’s why, for me, mergers are particularly tricky in the sector and run a very high risk of going wrong if they’re not sensitively handled.

The changes I’ve seen in 17 years include a gradual but perceptible move towards greater professionalisation in the management of charities. It’s not all plain sailing – you still see some ghastly mistakes made – but generally there’s a greater awareness of the need to manage people – usually a charity’s greatest asset – both sensitively and strategically. It’s a bit less reactive than in the mid-1990s.

Of course, this all works best when you’ve got savvy trustees who delegate management to the professionals, and I’ve lost count of the number of times that inappropriate interference from people who should be confining their activities to governance have undermined sensible management action. I fear it will only get worse if the flower-hat brigade – and they do still exist – get too excited by the big society and try to take over ever more services on the cheap.

I’d like to think I’ve played a small part in helping managers become more professional and develop their skills – and staff too, for that matter. But the real impetus has been greater accountability, not just to trustees and service users, important though that is, but also to the wider community, as charities derive more and more of their income from public funds. That was largely on the back of the huge expansion in the sector encouraged by the Labour government, and particularly as charities often took over roles traditionally delivered by the state.

That’s also the way of the future, in principle. But the elephant in the room, where the big society has still to square the circle, is funding – or rather, the lack of it. Most of the charities I have worked with would love to take on more, but their own public funding is being cut to the quick – just recently I was working on redundancies in a local charity that provides support to people with learning difficulties, and I’ll be doing the same next week too.

But new times need new thinking. I’m not sure that I’m the right person to be advising on what might be a sector reversion to services being delivered by volunteers rather than professional paid staff. There’ll always be a need for some management, and I’ll watch with interest from the sidelines. And I won’t be completely out of the loop. I’ve teamed up with Charity HR, which will be looking after my existing clients, and I’ll do a couple of days a month with it in an advisory capacity.

My main regret is that charity managers are still too reactive. Far too often they’ve come to me to sort out a problem that could have been avoided with more strategic forward planning. That’s getting better, but only very slowly. And I’d like to have got that client list to 300 before I retired!

I’m now going to do two days a month of consultancy and a bit of training. But mainly I’ll be looking after the grandchildren, following in my father’s footsteps by playing bowls – and rebuilding my model railway.

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