Richard Leaman on how a group structure kept a small charity afloat

The chief executive of Guide Dogs tells Annette Rawstrone the arrangement will help more beneficiaries

Richard Leaman
Richard Leaman

The sight-loss charities Guide Dogs and the National Blind Children's Society began in 2011 to collaborate on a number of projects for children with sight loss and their families. This led them to sign a memorandum of understanding in September 2012 to share skills and expertise.

But the following April NBCS issued a statement saying it no longer had "the size or the resilience at a time of recession to continue to develop its services". As a result, it decided to join forces formally with Guide Dogs; the Guide Dogs Group was formed, the NBCS chief executive Carolyn Fullard stepped down and NBCS rebranded as Blind Children UK in May last year.

The move has secured the smaller charity's future and enabled Guide Dogs to widen its activities. Richard Leaman, the group's chief executive, now divides his time between the two organisations – 80 per cent to Guide Dogs and 20 per cent to BCUK. "I have two business cards and can support both charities," he says.

For the year ending December 2013, BCUK reported an income of £787,000 and spending of £2.59m. "The past few years have been very tough for many charities," says Leaman. "BCUK approached Guide Dogs about a more formal arrangement that would secure their existing services. By coming together, the two organisations are better able to make a difference to the families and young people that need our help."

Leaman says the move was surprisingly rapid; he attributes this to a shared culture. "We'd worked together already and proved the concept, so most problems had already been overcome," he says. Getting the governance right and ensuring that BCUK retained its own voice and leadership were, he believes, the hardest parts of the process. In the group structure, BCUK, which now has about 75 staff, remains a separate legal entity from Guide Dogs, which has about 1,300 staff, and is a subsidiary of the larger organisation, benefiting from the support of its HR, legal and fundraising departments. Leaman says the structure enables BCUK, which has its own trustees, to make its own decisions, focus on its own identity and use it to raise funds.

Leaman acknowledges that staff were worried during the process; at the end of it, about 16 people were made redundant, because they were either unable to relocate to the head office in Reading, Berkshire, or their roles no longer existed in the new structure.

"We made it clear to those who stayed that they had professional skills we valued," says Leaman. "We tried to give them a sense of vision of the future, because they were facing, at best, zero growth and, at worst, something more awful. We said that we had delivered growth in children's services and gave them a sense of purpose and something to look forward to."

What lessons might the story have for other charities? Leaman, who was a rear admiral in the Royal Navy before joining Guide Dogs in April 2010, says he would not dream of giving advice to others, having been in the sector only for a short time; but he says that the ground rules when considering a merger are always the same. "It is important to always get the due diligence, go into the numbers and understand the implications," he says.

With the support of Guide Dogs, BCUK now delivers all the group's services for children and young people with sight loss and has started expanding its programmes, setting up hubs across the UK to provide habilitation provision, family and education support under one roof. Leaman says the charity worked with 2,440 children and young people in 2014, an increase of 87 per cent from the previous year. It is funding this growth through loans from Guide Dogs and plans to repay them when funds allow.

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