Interview: Graham Willmington of Community Matters

The chief executive tells Annette Rawstrone that the failure of merger talks proved to have its advantages

Willmington says failed merger talks with Navca forced Community Matters to forge an independent future
Willmington says failed merger talks with Navca forced Community Matters to forge an independent future

Community Matters, the national body for community organisations, had to rethink its future when its merger talks with the umbrella body Navca failed in March last year. But Graham Willmington, chief executive of Community Matters, believes the organisation is now stronger for the experience.

Plans to merge were abandoned because of fears that the combined pensions deficit could escalate and hinder the new organisation. Willmington says that walking away from the talks forced Community Matters to focus on the challenge of forging an independent future. He says: "In many ways it forced us to make tough decisions quickly about how we were going to survive, what our offer was and how we could best serve our 1,000 members, the majority of which are small organisations run by volunteers."

After the failed talks, David Tyler, then chief executive of Community Matters,

We had to decide what we were here for

stepped down and Willmington, its director of operations and communications, was appointed. The charity had a deficit of £167,838 in the year ending March 2013. "We had to decide what we were here for – what the point of the organisation was and what drove us, why people wanted to be members and what the spirit of the organisation should be; and then we had to decide how to do it and how to finance it," says Willmington. A survey of its member organisations found that 95 per cent wanted support and guidance, so it was decided to focus on training and consultancy work to provide an income. This decision earned the charity £250,000 in the past financial year – 45 per cent up on the previous year.

Willmington says: "We don't want to be in a position again where we need grant money and someone can in effect pull a lever and shut us down. Earning our way is crucial to providing the support that our members need."

The organisation's finances had to be overhauled and six staff were made redundant – three because the funding for programmes on which they were working had ended and three as part of the restructure. "It was painful to get rid of people you worked with, but happily they all have work now," says Willmington. "We have kept our staff team small and we do a lot of work through outsourcing to associates. By pulling in services when they're needed, we don't have the cost and responsibility of full-time employees and can focus on the core work of supporting community groups."

The organisation now operates with two full-time and five part-time staff. It has relocated to smaller offices, renegotiated service contracts and dispensed with non-essentials such as the water cooler and franking machine. Members at the annual general meeting voted to start receiving documents by email, which Willmington estimates has saved at least £3,000 in printing and postage costs.

"It's important to strip down costs as quickly as possible – you can't be sentimental," he says. "The only sentiment we allowed ourselves was that we felt the members needed us."

After a year of "knuckling down to become lean and flexible", Willmington says, the organisation is in a position to look to the future. "We are on a three-year journey to remove the deficit and in the year to March 2014 – the first of the three years – we have exceeded that year's deficit reduction target, although final accounts are still with the auditors for sign-off." Willmington now wants to focus on increasing the membership and developing good partnerships with other organisations, which he regards as a "good alternative to a merger".

He concludes: "The key is to be flexible and not to cling to an old way of doing things. Yes, we have had to take some tough decisions, but from there a path can emerge with a clear business strategy."

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