Opinion: Hot issue - Do charities relate well to their regional offices?

New research suggests that there is "a culture of mutual suspicion and disrespect" between charity headquarters and their local branches. Only a third of those questioned thought the relationship was well balanced.

NO - BRIAN GARVEY, HEAD OF PROJECTS AND SERVICE DEVELOPMENT, NFPSYNERGY

At least, a significant minority of charities don't. That's what nfpSynergy's latest research - qualitative interviews and a survey of 342 sector professionals - shows.

Apart from those alluded to in the introduction above, there were many other findings that suggest some charities should be concerned about their regional/HQ relationships.

More than a third of charity employees surveyed said there was "a culture of mutual suspicion and disrespect" between HQ and the regional offices.

Only a third thought their organisation had achieved the right balance between being consultative and getting the job done. Fewer than two in five felt there was good communication between HQ and the regions, and half of all respondents said both HQ and the regions frequently lacked understanding of what the other was dealing with. These results illustrate some worrying schisms and should encourage charities to take a critical look at how their regional/HQ relationships might be improved.

The findings suggest current regional/HQ relationships in some charities have descended to an 'us against them' culture. For many charities, there is considerable room for improvement.

YES - STEPHEN HANVEY, HEAD OF MEMBERS' SERVICES, VICTIM SUPPORT

It is important to note that this is not just a charity phenomenon - it is also evident in public and commercial organisations.

Victim Support has 90 independent charity 'areas' that run our community-based service from branches and our Witness Service in the courts. These areas are supported by the national office, which plays a central role in our relationship with the Government and the grant that we receive for our work with victims and witnesses.

The relationship between the national office and the member charities is much stronger than it was four years ago, when we moved from an entrepreneurial mode of operating, based around 450 local schemes and a centre, to a more rationalised mode, with 90 areas and a greater emphasis on accountability.

This move brought with it a new tier of managers, who could tighten up accountability and develop a closer working relationship with the national office. The national office provides the areas with support in functions such as fundraising and communications, service guidelines and governance.

We also run a dedicated helpdesk for calls from our colleagues in the regions. This enables us to respond quickly to their enquiries.

NO - BRIDGET CLULEY, TRUSTEE, NSPCC

The nfpSynergy findings come as no surprise to many of us. The sad thing is that the effect of poor communication between centre and regions - and the resulting damage to relationships - only serves to prevent organisations achieving their full potential. Sometimes, these unhealthy relationships spill over into volunteer networks, creating a 'them and us' culture between regional staff, volunteers and the centre.

Ironically for a sector in which external relationships with donors and supporters are regularly reviewed, some organisations are paying inadequate attention to internal relationships between centre and regions.

Long-distance relationships require time and effort to keep flowering.

Why don't we put as much effort into our internal relationships? We should create regular opportunities for central and regional staff to talk, share aspirations and co-operate.

The costs of getting together in one place may be prohibitive, but teleconferences with clear objectives can be effective too.

Distance rarely makes the heart grow fonder - misunderstandings can balloon into outright warfare and unhealthy tension between centre and regions can prevent organisations getting the best out of donors and volunteers. This is fair to no one.

YES - STEVE EDDY, HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER, SHELTER

Maintaining good relationships within a geographically dispersed organisation is often hard, but there are many steps that can bridge the gap. For example, a Shelter staff survey found that many employees felt our internal communications needed to improve. We subsequently appointed an internal communications manager, invested in our intranet and started to use newsletters and briefings.

We also began to focus more on the induction package given to all new staff, encouraging staff at all levels to visit offices in different regions to meet regional staff, discuss queries and receive valuable feedback.

Shelter has also begun regionalising posts where possible. There are now two human resources posts in our regions, created specifically to build good relationships and mutual understanding. We also have regional campaign officers to help communicate the needs and issues of the regions, making sure these issues are addressed in all the work we do.

There is always room for improvement, but our most recent staff survey showed a huge increase in how much they felt their opinions were valued.

It is only through talking to all staff in all offices that charities can overcome the geographical gap.

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