The economic downturn and stringent funding cuts did not come as a surprise to the environmental regeneration charity Groundwork UK, but it had to react quickly to survive when the coalition government came into power five years ago.
It lost a central government grant of £14m a year, and its total income has fallen from about £120m to £90m in the past three years; even so, Graham Duxbury, the charity's chief executive since March 2014 and its former director of development, says the 35-year-old organisation has continued to evolve and maintain its core values.
"We were not suddenly hit by the spending cuts but had been anticipating a reduction for some time," he says. "We negotiated with central government to ensure our grant would not end overnight, but that there would be a phased reduction over three years down to zero core funding in 2014/15. This gave us time to plan and invest in new capabilities."
The charity's aims are to promote greener living and working, campaign against and support people to escape fuel poverty, work to improve neglected spaces and help people into work through training and practical experience.
It operates in a federated structure and had already started to consolidate the number of its units from more than 40 to 17, plus the national centre. Having larger units enabled it to make savings through economies of scale and free up resources to achieve more local impact. "We also took a long, hard look at the services that we needed to provide at the national centre rather than on the front line in order to focus on being a national voice, on fundraising and on income generation."
He says the inevitable redundancies were "difficult and challenging"; as with many programme delivery organisations, many people were employed on short-term contracts. The number of people employed by the Groundwork federation has not hugely altered - it still employs more than 1,000. But the staffing levels at Groundwork UK, the central hub of the federation, have dropped from more than 100 to less than 30 over the past five years.
The organisation also looked for innovation on project delivery. "We'd also started to think through how we could focus on a national level to prepare for life beyond government grant funding and how we could best invest in our capability," says Duxbury. "We were good at winning and managing public service delivery contracts. We had to make sure we had the capability to do more of this, so we invested in our ability to bid, manage and assess risk."
Gaining more non-contract income was also a priority. "We needed to become more visible and have more strategic relationships with business, charitable foundations and major donors to unlock new income sources," he says. "It was all about mobilising our collective resources to find experts and good practice, innovation and skills and make them work for the benefit of Groundwork."
The past few years have been difficult, but Duxbury says the charity has changed for the better and now has the flexibility to adapt and guard against further cuts. "We have a more active and dynamic management and focus on our operations. When there were more than 40 units, our ability to talk was limited to an annual conference; but now we can get 18 people in a boardroom every six weeks."
Quality governance has been paramount over the past few years, says Duxbury: "A lot of our trustees are business people and its helpful that we've had this commercial input into our decision-making. It's important to ensure we have the right people and the right level of commitment on the board. The role of the chief executive is to give the correct information to the board so they can make tough decisions such as how and where to invest, where to grow and where to consolidate."
He says charities should seek the opinions of those involved in service delivery. "They see the work first hand and have different views on how the organisation needs to respond to the challenges in their communities," he says. "This needs to be factored into management decisions."
Duxbury has recently developed a five-year strategy and says Groundwork's core objectives have remained the same despite this challenging period. "It is heartening that we are staying true to what we believe in and to what communities tell us that they want," he says.