How we got free advice from the private sector

Elizabeth Coe, chief executive of the National Association of Child Contact Centres, says it turned to the Cranfield Trust to clarify its strategic objectives. Annette Rawstrone reports

National Association of Child Contact Centres
National Association of Child Contact Centres

Getting business input from the commercial director of a national corporation has rejuvenated the strategy of the National Association of Child Contact Centres and boosted its potential to secure funding.

Elizabeth Coe, chief executive of the supporting membership body for about 350 child contact centres in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, says that when she joined the charity in January 2013 it lacked a good business plan that was "forward-looking and would attract funders".

She identified a skills gap in the organisation. "We've got a great board of trustees with a good range of skills, from financial to legal, and social workers who understand all about safeguarding children," she says. "But what was missing was a strong business mind."

Coe approached the Cranfield Trust, which provides free management advice to charities through volunteer management consultants; it matched her up with Paul Corcoran, the commercial director for DeltaRail, a software provider for the transport industry. Corcoran is responsible for the company's commercial strategy, bids and procurement.

"As a social worker, I've managed budgets for years, but there are some things I'm not so good at," says Coe. "Getting help from someone who was more focused and strategic was wonderful. Paul has helped us achieve a sound business strategy to sell to funders."

Coe and Corcoran embarked on a two-day planning meeting with the board to focus on the charity's strategic objectives, and then involved all the staff in their delivery. Corcoran says: "In an organisation that is providing a service, it's easy to get stuck in to dealing with the next issue and do a lot of fire-fighting. But it's important to revisit the organisation's strategy to be clear about which areas to focus on, so that we can develop objectives and new services and identify what is needed in the long term to make the organisation more sustainable." Corcoran says it's essential to get the objectives right; these can then guide day-to-day decisions and help the organisation to be more focused on securing funding.

Through his work with the NACCC, Corcoran says he has come to see the similarities between the private and third sectors. "The challenges faced by charities in getting funding are much the same as those faced by private organisations," he says. "They both exist in competitive environments, and they need to know their strengths and weaknesses and look at where funding is coming from in order to adapt their plans. For both, it is important to differentiate yourself in the competitive environment and focus on unique selling points."

Coe says she felt that the NACCC was not good at trumpeting its strengths. Corcoran helped it to be more specific and to tailor bids to the required criteria, with a clear story spelling out why it was applying and why it needed to secure funding. He advised the charity to make personal contact with potential funders, rather than just sending an application. "If you know someone, you read the application differently than you would a cold application, and that helps if you have not quite got the message right on the page," Corcoran says.

Since adopting these new practices, the NACCC has been successful in a number of bids, securing funding from, among others, the City Bridge Trust and Cafcass, and £382,000 from the Department for Work and Pensions in January this year. Corcoran enjoyed working with the charity so much that he has recently joined its board of trustees, and he continues to advise on its business plan, marketing strategy, online presence and funding bids.

Coe says: "It's important to take any help you can if you want the health of the organisation to continue. No one has got all the skills needed to run an organisation. We'd have been foolish not to get someone in with business knowledge – and we're not letting Paul go."

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