Mindy Sawhney, Vitalise

The chair of the charity that provides respite care talks to Kaye Wiggins about how she was 'nudged' into trusteeship and is now leading change at Vitalise

Mindy Sawhney
Mindy Sawhney

When Mindy Sawhney became chair of the disability charity Vitalise in September last year, it had an £809,000 deficit. The costs of running its services were rising and its income - from both statutory sources and trusts and foundations - was about to plummet.

The charity had already agreed on a plan to eliminate its deficit by 2012, and Sawhney was charged with putting this into place.

"About 12 months ago, when I was a trustee but before I became chair, we took a really unflinching look at our work," she says. "We decided that preserving our core work, which is providing holidays for disabled people, was our top priority."

To eliminate its deficit, the charity will transfer all of its services, except the holidays, to other organisations. "Vitalise's services have been proliferating for about a decade," Sawhney says. "The only way to eliminate our deficit is to stop providing all of the other services. A huge amount of management time was being focused on them."

So far, the charity has ended two of its services. Vitalise Home Services, a home-help scheme based in Kensington and Chelsea, and Skill Swap, a scheme that matched people with others who could help them with day-to-day living, have been transferred to the charity Crossroads Care Camden.

"Our specialism has to be providing breaks with care," Sawhney says. "The aim is that in 12 months' time we will just provide breaks."

In practice, this means that the charity's day centre in Derby, its activity centre in Cornwall and its residential care home in Southport, Merseyside, will also be transferred to other organisations.

Sawhney says Vitalise will always aim to transfer services to other voluntary sector groups, but would not rule out letting private sector firms take them on if no charities came forward to run them.

The charity has not yet made any of its staff redundant because they have been able to move to the new organisations. She acknowledges, however, that services might have to close if no one else wants to take them on. Chairing the charity during this turbulent period has been time- consuming, Sawhney says. "At the moment I'm spending two days a week on Vitalise work, and it's unpaid.

"I run my own consultancy business that advises charities and I've got a young child. I'm also expecting a second child in March, so it will be hard to fit it all in."

She says support from staff and other trustees has made her task easier. "I've been really fortunate because my fellow trustees have really stepped up and been very motivated," she says. "Staff are also behind the strategy we've chosen. It's difficult because they're saying goodbye to colleagues and facing pay freezes, but they have been very supportive."

Sawhney says she would not have gone into trusteeship had she not been nudged to do so. "Through my consultancy firm, I advised Geraldine Peacock when she was chief executive of Guide Dogs for the Blind," she says. "Vitalise asked her to be a trustee and she recommended me instead. I wasn't thinking about becoming a trustee at the time."

Sawhney says she is aware that things will get more difficult for the charity before her three-year term as chair ends. "Between 60 and 70 per cent of our funding comes from local authorities and primary care trusts at the moment. The public spending hole is so huge that we won't be unaffected," she says.

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