Focus: People Management - How to ... manage rapid growth

How can voluntary organisations cope with the pains of expansion? Amanda Tincknell explains.

Most of us in the voluntary sector are concerned with securing the future of our organisations, but occasionally an organisation has the opportunity and resources to grow fast. This isn't always a dream scenario and can cause problems as difficult as those associated with the struggle for survival.

The senior team is firefighting rather than managing the critical areas of work, systems are under strain and staff are stretched and demoralised, leading to a higher than normal turnover. In turn, this puts pressure on recruitment and training. At worst, problems can affect the supporter base - personal contacts are lost, questions unanswered and quality falls.

One thing you might have to do is improve your structure and systems.

Explore ways of doing things differently - quicker, more efficiently, maybe even partnering with other organisations. Make sure any problems in your systems are straightened out to support the higher workload. It may be time to do a major overhaul - and to invest in new systems.

Think also about developing your team - and not just by recruiting. You might need to expand your team fast, but you might also be able to take some of the load off your key people.

The growth of the organisation should be reflected in personal growth opportunities for the people who work in it. Have a look at their activities and see if you can give them better clerical or management support - it could be more cost-effective early in the growth phase. If you still need to recruit new managers, recruit to fill gaps and bring in new skills.

Finally, your existing training and development programme will help your growth - don't be tempted to let it slip because of time pressures. If you don't do any training at the moment, consider the immediate areas that would help your staff deliver growth and invest in some training here.

Case study 1: resource rich

An international development organisation was given a major boost in income through national press coverage and converted this one-off opportunity into continued support from new donors. Investment in new programmes was fantastic, but the growth brought problems, not least in processing donations.

Income trebled in 18 months and the supporter database went from 6,000 to 20,000 in two years - everything was creaking.

An internal review covered IT, staff resources, streamlining processes and cutting duplication of effort. New staff were recruited to support the existing team. Growth continues at 20 per cent a year.

Case study 2: resource poor

A small national infrastructure organisation experienced dramatic growth in moving from a volunteer-led structure to a staff-run organisation.

A higher profile produced a surge in demand and the legacy of the volunteer culture meant that staff were reluctant to refuse or refer potential clients, working ever longer hours to support the growth.

A programme of recruiting senior operational staff to ensure continued quality of delivery, investment in new skills for support staff and rounding out the specialist expertise of the original team was put in place.

- Amanda Tincknell is chief executive of the Cranfield Trust (www.cranfield, which provides free consultancy to the voluntary sector through commercial sector volunteers. This article - the first in a monthly series - draws on recent HR casework.

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