Interview: Virginia Beardshaw

The chief executive of children's communication charity I Can tells Annette Rawstrone why the charity has started a social enterprise

Virginia Beardshaw
Virginia Beardshaw

The future of the sector will involve many more social enterprises and traditional charities running them as a core part of their work, according to Virginia Beardshaw, chief executive of the children's communication charity I Can.

As the charity concludes its 125th birthday celebrations, Beardshaw, who joined in 2005, feels in a good position to reflect on the organisation and its history, but also to look ahead. And as vice-chair of the chief executives body Acevo, she benefits from a sector-wide perspective and is aware that most charities are now putting on "business heads".

She believes it's important that charities adopt business models if they suit their missions, and says they need to get ahead of the game - something I Can is doing by setting up a social enterprise. The charity has developed training courses for speech and language therapists and early years practitioners to become licensees and use the charity's programmes and interventions in their settings.

Greater reach

"This has been necessary to reach more children, get the solutions out there and get them adopted," she says. "We are a medium-sized charity and our reach is far greater by licensing other people to take our programmes into early years settings and schools.

"Running a licensing business over the past three years has given me more respect for people who create and run businesses. It is very taxing and a big change from a traditional charity approach. But it is something we are happy to embrace - we would not be able to deliver our programmes and resources if we relied solely on charitable means.

"However, it will never be a straight business model because we do still need donations, especially from trusts and foundations, to develop the resources."

Beardshaw acknowledges that it can be a hard approach for some charities to embrace. I Can also runs schools and has adopted a businesslike approach for some time, but there has still been internal questioning about the establishment of the social enterprise over the past three years.

"We have gone through various bumps in the road with our staff group, but we explain to them how we will reach more children, and that quells the worries," she says.

New entrants to the sector

She anticipates that there will be new entrants to the sector in the coming years to take advantage of the NHS and other bodies becoming more open to third sector providers.

"In common with a lot of charities, we are now seeing a retreat of the state," she says. "We feel that the NHS is also in retreat from areas of speech and language, focusing its limited resources on acute care instead.

"It is also difficult for the charity because we work between the areas of education and health - like two huge tectonic plates. We have been dealing with a big shift because of austerity. Ironically, the state retreating to leave charities to do the work has brought us back to our Victorian roots."

I Can, which has 176 employees and had a total income of £7m in 2012/13, was founded as the Invalid Children's Aid Association in 1888. The charity continues to work with vulnerable children, but underwent a reinvention in the 1950s to focus on the niche area of speech and language issues. The name change followed in 1986.

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