Elizabeth Balgobin: Think passion, mission and meerkats in the year ahead

Our columnist shares her ideas for what 2013 has in store for the sector

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

I suspect that 2013 will be a big year for many of us. The changes to the welfare system kick in before long this year, alongside the ending of funding for many organisations, which will make these already interesting times quite challenging.

Working with black and minority ethnic organisations, as we do at Voice4Change, I keep hearing about the difficulties they are now facing. I also hear how many are seeing fresh opportunities and exploring new ways of working. For every story of probable closure I also hear one about sharing functions, potential mergers or changing the operating environment.

So how should boards support this, deliver on our duty of care and act prudently? Setting out the dates for our meetings this year has reminded me how little time there is to do everything. Breaking it all down to specific issues for each meeting helps a little, but there is so much to deal with nowadays that I have decided to take a slightly different tack: I am looking at the principles we can give to the staff and use for our own decision-making.

Money, and its general scarcity, is a primary driver at the moment. How to grasp new opportunities when we are already at full delivery capacity is another. As a membership organisation, we are also concerned to ensure we meet the needs of our members. So here are some ideas that I will be sharing with my board and our staff for the year ahead:

- Stick to the mission. This might seem obvious, but when times are tough we sometimes think of taking on new work in order to survive. If it does nothing to deliver the mission, then do not do it.

- Work together. Another obvious one, but probably one of the most difficult to achieve. If you can work collaboratively, to share resources and enhance what you are doing, then go for it. However, ensure your aims, your way of working and your audiences complement each other.

- Procure from within the sector. The Big Assist programme exists to provide development for support organisations. We also deliver development to the sector. If you have an equal choice between a sector provider or a private provider, you should support the sector. This goes for all other procurement opportunities. Money is tight and you still need to get value for that money, but look at what you buy and where you buy it. These day-to-day purchasing decisions will be made by staff, if you have them, so they need to know what this approach means. Your job as the board is to check your procedures and amend these if necessary.

- Take risks - calculated ones, but risks nonetheless. What have you got to lose? One organisation has decided that everyone works from home in order to cut overhead costs. Another has created a new post from reserves to meet the new needs of existing clients - the board has made this a pilot project and set clear parameters for monitoring progress.

- It's all right to say no. There is a temptation to say yes to everything when there is so much to do, but do not be afraid of saying no. A decision not to do something can create the space and time to grasp another, more fitting opportunity.

- Be passionate. If you see a wrong, speak up and do what you can to set it right. We are a sector that emerged because passionate people wanted to address a wrong. Even in these wearisome times our passion should be harnessed and used to buoy us up in our work.

- Communicate. Use any and all means to communicate with each other. If your board meets just once a quarter, then make the effort to at least email each other between meetings. The world moves swiftly and you all need to pull together.

- Be a meerkat. Be realistic: if you cannot survive on your own, look at mergers and closure. Plan it. Boards should never be ostrich-like - but we all know that, at times, some things can go in the too-difficult drawer.

- Look after each other. Bear in mind that other board members might be experiencing all of this as staff in another organisation and your staff might be facing the hard decisions in their board roles. This is one time when we are all in it together.

I saw a quote about entrepreneurs that is relevant to us as leaders now: entrepreneurs are like tea bags - you only know how strong they are when you dunk them in hot water. May your tea be strong in the year ahead.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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