Interview: Lucy de Groot

The CSV chief executive says she has had to make major changes during a challenging first year in charge in which the organisation lost £1.1m in strategic partner funding

Lucy de Groot
Lucy de Groot

The charity Community Service Volunteers has seen a seismic shift since Lucy de Groot replaced its long-time chief executive, Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, a year ago.

De Groot, who took the helm when Hoodless retired after 47 years at the charity, arrived at a difficult time.

"Almost immediately after I started, we put in our application for strategic partnership funding from the Cabinet Office," she says. "We didn't get it and, in effect, lost £1.1m. That grant was crucial to underpinning our core costs, and the loss immediately put a lot of pressure on the organisation."

The strategic partnership funding was one of several large government funding streams that CSV has lost since the coalition government took power. The Future Jobs Fund and the Department for Work and Pensions' volunteer brokerage scheme, in both of which CSV had played a significant role, also ended, as did several programmes that CSV worked on with the youth volunteering charity v. It has led to some difficult decisions for the organisation, which received 79 per cent of its funding from statutory sources in 2009/10.

De Groot, who has held a variety of senior posts, including director of public services under Gordon Brown at the Treasury and chief executive of Bristol City Council, admits it has been a challenging first year. "You assume when you come into a new organisation that you'll have to make a few changes, especially when you take over from someone who had run the organisation for a long time," says de Groot.

"But the immediacy of it all was a surprise. It quickly became clear that it was the end of the era of those mass schemes. Our portfolio needs to shift from being as public sector dominated as it is."

She says a 50-50 balance between statutory and other funding is "crudely where we'd like to be".

The combination of new leadership and funding pressures necessitated constructive criticism of CSV's approach, she says. "We took a long, hard look at ourselves," she says. "When I started, the organisation was unclear about the nature of its business model. One of the problems is that it had always looked to do the next thing, to get involved in the next programme, and had actually failed to develop a replicable business model. We are having to make a major change to that, which culturally is difficult."

De Groot says this will come about through a wide-ranging restructure that will focus all the charity's work on two key themes: learning, and social action and volunteering. She is reluctant to discuss the redundancies involved, saying: "I wouldn't put it in those terms. A number of senior managers are moving on, either having been made redundant or as early retirement, and we might have to make other changes further down the track."

She does admit, however, that although many staff have taken what she sees as a commendably positive approach to the changes, the restructure has been difficult. "Some people feel very committed to their projects and to their work on the ground in their localities," she says. "We are saying there has to be one CSV that is coherent and financially viable. If we can't make that happen then saving individual projects, however nice that may be, is not a credible way of going forward."

De Groot says it has become clear with hindsight that, when the economic crisis began in 2008, CSV was not quick enough to grasp its significance for the charity's funding. "If I'm honest, there was an assumption that it would be all right on the night. We ought to have shifted sooner from that. I don't do 'all right on the night'. But because the Future Jobs Fund came about after the financial crash, and CSV played a big part in it, there was an assumption that those sorts of things would go on. People weren't making other changes because it seemed like there was a system that still more or less worked."

One year on from her appointment, de Groot says, the charity is in a state of flux. It has won some new government funding for the National Citizen Service and an apprenticeships programme, and has made plans to win non-statutory funding by carrying out impact measurement, partnership working and fundraising. But she says the charity is not out of difficulty yet. "We've done some of the heavy lifting, but we will have to do more," she says. "Putting together next year's budget is going to be challenging."

De Groot is clear, though, that the changes are more than just a short-term response to a wake-up call about statutory funding. "We will be 50 years old this year," she says. "As well as looking at next year's budget, we are asking how we can we renew ourselves so that we can be going for another 50 years. It's going to be a tough ask."

CV

2011: Chief executive, Community Service Volunteers
2010: Independent chair, Cornwall Children's Services Improvement Board
2003: Executive director, Improvement and Development Agency
2000: Director of public services, HM Treasury
1994: Chief executive, Bristol City Council

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