Mark Atkinson: Being bold has paid off for Scope

Last year the disability charity began a radical restructure. Its chief executive discusses the difference the changes have made

Mark Atkinson
Mark Atkinson

"Wyboston Lakes" would sound at home among the Great Lakes of North America: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario – and Wyboston. However, in truth it is a conference centre sandwiched between the A1 and the River Great Ouse in Bedfordshire, where Scope’s trustees and senior leaders gathered in September 2015 to begin the process of developing a new strategy for the organisation.

I was there as Scope’s interim chief executive. I had been with the organisation for two years, but just three-and-a-half months in the top job. I distinctly remember driving up the A1 from London trying to predict what the outcome of the next 24 hours would be. There were various red flags that the organisation needed to react to: it was struggling to evidence its impact and cover its running costs. But would that be enough to force a fundamental rethink?

Everyone understood the origins of Scope and the ambition of its founders nearly 70 years ago. What was less clear was the purpose of the organisation today and its value to disabled people in the 21st century. Would the usual mantra that dominates many trustee boards that claim to be radical and yet are deeply conservative prevail at Wyboston?

No chance. What became clear almost immediately was the desire for fundamental change within the organisation. Within 24 hours we had agreed a new "high-level proposition" as well as proposed "characteristics of the future organisation". At the heart of this was a need to reach many more disabled people, to achieve and evidence greater impact and to focus. There was also a clear view that these ambitions would require us to make difficult choices. We articulated a vision of a modern, contemporary organisation, relevant to the lives of millions of disabled people and their families.

Two statements stood out on the list that we collectively agreed. First, "Our resources will be focused on delivering positive social change that benefits the largest number of disabled people". Second, "We will exit from the activities that are not strategically aligned. This means we will move away from the provision of all direct and complex regulated services."

Five-year strategy

It was 18 months later, in April 2017, that we published our new five-year strategy, Everyday Equality. The intervening time was dedicated to engaging and consulting with customers, supporters, staff, volunteers and partners around our future focus. We defined our future goals, agreed outcomes and decided how we would evidence our impact. We conducted a governance review that led to a much smaller board, hired several new senior leaders, restored our financial health and set about ensuring the organisation that was fit for the future. Importantly, we continued to ensure the services that we planned to transfer continued to operate to the very highest of standards.

Crucially, in the two-and-a-half years since Wyboston Lakes, I – and a group of fantastically talented and capable staff – have been focused on delivering a complex and difficult project to transfer our entire portfolio of regulated and day services. Fifty-five services, to be exact, from residential care homes to supported living services, two schools, a specialist further education college, a fostering service, a children’s home, a children’s centre and several community and day services. From Sunderland to Cornwall and from Norfolk to south Wales, it affected 1,600 employees – two-thirds of our staff – and more than a third of our income. Scope had operated some of these services since the late 1950s, so the process of transferring them generated a range of emotions, from sadness and anger to delight and optimism. It took 13 months from the point that we announced our plans to the final transfer of these services. This was a long and uncertain time for many staff and customers, but from day one we pledged that one of our core values was to be open – and this was an example of where transparency and honesty really mattered.

I looked for examples of other charities that had embarked on similar programmes and there was barely anything to compare with – certainly not where an organisation was actively and positively choosing to refocus and divest as opposed to responding to a crisis or a burning platform. These 55 services were of a very high standard, typically performing well above the national average when looking at regulatory performance. Fundamentally, this was a choice – and the very best strategies are built upon choice, not compromise.

Subtract to multiply

I believe that organisations must subtract before they can multiply, and that’s what we were attempting. Our strategy is far from being about downsizing. It is about growth, but growth that helps us to achieve our mission of reaching more disabled people and driving social change to move towards equality. We plan to reach two million disabled people and their families directly through best-in-class information, advice and support, and to be there at the key moments that matter. We want to drive social change by influencing public policy, change attitudes and shape markets so that disabled people enjoy equality. To do this, we had to focus our efforts where we could have the greatest impact.

Scope’s board agreed rigorous criteria that shaped the search for a new provider for our services. We were looking for a credible provider that had a commitment to continuity of care for customers and a track record of operating similar services to a high regulatory standard. We were agnostic about whether we attracted a provider from the commercial, public or third sector. In reality, most third sector organisations had insufficient free reserves or the appetite for risk required to purchase these services and the freehold property from which they were delivered.

What followed was several months of engagement with interested providers, copious amounts of diligence, valuations and engagement with stakeholders. We announced in December 2017 that we planned to transfer the portfolio to Salutem Healthcare Group and, at the end of April 2018, we completed the transfer. No services were closed, 1,598 staff transferred and Scope was free to focus relentlessly on its mission of achieving everyday equality for disabled people.

Would I encourage other organisations to embark on such a journey? Well it depends on what your mission is and what success means to your organisation. For Scope this was unquestionably the right decision: for more than 20 years we have struggled to balance the demands of being a social care provider and an advocacy organisation, to provide personal care and education to a small number of customers while proclaiming to be about social change. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but it is extraordinarily difficult to do both things equally and to the highest of standards.

Our strategy has been described as radical, and that might be true in some respects. But shouldn’t every charity constantly challenge itself on its impact, value and relevance, and then have the courage to do what’s right rather than what’s easy?

Mark Atkinson is the chief executive of Scope

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