Interview: Theodore Spyrou of the Whittington Park Community Association

He tells Femke Colborne how a restructure has led to a more and successful and humane organisation

Theodore Spyrou, chief executive of the WPCA
Theodore Spyrou, chief executive of the WPCA

The Whittington Park Community Association is a community centre in Islington, north London. The charity owns a number of buildings in the area and provides services such as childcare, after-school clubs, vocational training and social events for older people. Over the past five years, it has tripled its workforce and increased its activity fourfold. In order to cope with this growth it underwent a major restructure at the beginning of 2009.

Theodore Spyrou, the chief executive of the WPCA, joined the charity in 2005 when it was facing serious financial problems. After dealing with some immediate issues – such as a spate of funding cuts, redundancies on his first day and a broken laptop that meant the charity’s finances for the year had to be reconstructed from scratch – he set about finding ways to increase the organisation’s income.

Spyrou decided to set up two social enterprises, one to provide hall hire and another offering catering for social events. The charity began to reinvest income from these projects back into services, which in turn helped it to generate extra funding. By the end of 2008, things began to look more positive; its workforce had grown from 11 to 20. But with the extra work and staff came new pressures.

"It was becoming ridiculous, with 20 employees reporting to one chief executive," says Spyrou. "It’s very easy in the voluntary sector to get so carried away with enthusiasm that you keep digging yourself in and taking on more until you reach the point where you pop. Luckily, I didn’t reach that point – after the restructure my workload became more humane."

The restructure divided the workforce into three new departments – administration, play and youth, and catering – and a senior manager was appointed to head each department. Four posts were made redundant and 18 new posts were created, with the people who were let go invited to apply for the new roles.

"It was also about sustainability for the organisation," says Spyrou. "I was working 70 hours a week, and they would not have been able to find anyone else who was willing to do that. Now I’m working 35 to 40 hours a week and there is less strain on the other roles too. We’ve gone from an everyone-mucks-in set-up to a more professional one."

Spyrou says most staff at the charity reacted well to the changes, and that when there were objections, he dealt with them by being open and approachable. "I don’t seclude myself at the top of an ivory tower," he says. "I try and maintain a personal rapport with staff at all levels. I go to the pub with them. That meant people felt they could be open, and most people felt they understood where we were going and why.

"Some tempers flare up, and you have to cope with that as you would any other situation – some people need a shoulder to cry on, some need someone to shout at. A lot of it is about people skills. If you talk to people and involve them, things get done. That makes all the difference – people need to feel that they have buy-in, not that they are being bossed about or directed."

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