Being tough at the top

Paul Burgess's firm hand and person-centred approach have helped to turn around the fortunes of the Birmingham charity he has chaired since 2004. Alex Coxon meets him.

Paul Burgess
Paul Burgess

When Paul Burgess arrived at Birmingham Focus on Blindness in late 2004, he knew chairing the board of trustee directors wouldn't be easy. The charity, which helps 30,000 people in Birmingham who are blind or sight-impaired, was operating at a loss of between £300,000 and £400,000 annually. The loss was being funded by the charity's reserves, which were fast disappearing, and the situation simply wasn't sustainable.

An organisational change consultant by trade, Burgess quickly imposed some tough targets. His plan: to reduce the organisation's operating loss to £100,000 by the end of his first year, to break even by December 2006 and to be in surplus by the close of 2007.

As it transpired, by March of last year the charity was already seeing signs of a surplus. And today it is £400,000 in the black. "What we needed was a long, hard look at where we were losing money and for steps to be taken to address that loss," says Burgess.

Nine months after joining Focus - as it is known locally - Burgess completed an evaluation of the charity and discovered the root causes of its financial difficulties. The biggest problem, he says, was in the fundraising department. "There were 23 people working there, but the money they were raising was only just covering their costs," he says.

He was honest about the financial situation with the fundraisers and asked for their suggestions on how more income could be raised, but he soon acknowledged job losses were inevitable. A review of the department led to a restructuring plan that would reduce the 23 jobs to just five.

"Fortunately, there were areas of naturally high turnover, including a telephone cold-calling centre employing about eight people - typically students - that wasn't making money," says Burgess. "We reduced the size of the team as people left, and within six months we were able to close it completely without making redundancies.

"The key was to communicate with people throughout the process and show them our measures were about safeguarding our services and growing the organisation. In the end, 13 fundraising people left through natural wastage and we made only five people redundant - each of whom understood how and why the restructuring had taken place and what their rights were."

Once the redundancies were completed, Burgess's attention turned to making more efficient use of staff elsewhere. Creativity was the name of the game, he says. "Instead of getting two staff involved with organising an awareness- raising event, for example, Focus started forming partnerships and pooling resources with other charities to halve the man hours required from each organisation."

Another step was to investigate business opportunities. The charity now makes money by undertaking Disability Discrimination Act compliance checks for local offices and by running disability awareness training sessions.

Burgess's ideas appear to have reversed the charity's fortunes. Where it was nearly £400,000 in deficit, it is today the same amount in credit.

That money is now being reinvested in the organisation, helping to pay for a proposed second facility in north Birmingham and going towards funding two new senior roles in service delivery and business development.

Burgess hopes the latter will generate an extra £100,000 in 2008. Beyond that? "I'd like to see Focus centres in west and east Birmingham as well as the south and north," he says. "To do that, we've got to carry on running Focus like a business. And we've got to carry on being creative."

HANDLING REDUNDANCY SENSITIVELY

Be transparent and involve your staff in the decision-making process, says Paul Burgess

1. Get senior managers on board. "Be transparent so they fully understand the problem and how you aim to tackle it," says Burgess. "If managers aren't on board, their frustrations will cascade down to other staff members."

2. Involve employees in decision-making. Burgess gave staff the opportunity to suggest where they felt savings could be made at Focus. Doing this gave people a sense of ownership of the problem. It also made it easier to explain why redundancies were still necessary because staff appreciated that all other options had been exhausted.

3. Exploit internal expertise. When Burgess became chair at Focus, he overhauled the board of trustee directors to include experts from the business world in areas such as HR and law, as well as people interested in service provision. This enabled him to call on the specialists when redundancies had to be made to ensure each case was entirely legal and handled sensitively.

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