Tessy Ojo: the Diana Award survived by changing what it does

Ojo, chief executive of the charity, tells Annette Rawstrone it has become less reactive and now offers wider services

Tessy Ojo
Tessy Ojo

When Tessy Ojo became chief executive of the Diana Award in September 2012, she had to consider seriously whether the charity had a viable future without its core government funding, which was stopping at the end of that financial year.

"It was a critical time: we had been given a year's notice that we were coming to the end of our core grant," says Ojo. "The new government wanted charities to be self-sustaining. I had been director of operations since 2000, so I knew the charity well and recognised that we faced a tough challenge. I had to take a big step back, look at our business plan and ask what we wanted to do and what we were best placed to tackle."

The DA was set up as a charity-administered project by a government committee in 1999 as a legacy of Princess Diana's belief that young people have the power to change the world for the better. Its original purpose was to give awards in recognition of the inspirational achievements of 12 to 18-year-olds. The DA became a charity in its own right in 2006, and expanded its work to include an anti-bullying programme, but continued to rely on an annual grant from the Department for Education. This began in 1999 at £250,000, which the charity used to run various projects and helped it to secure additional funding. The final DfE grant, of £100,000, was made in 2012.

Ojo spent her first few months as chief executive looking at the data on the charity's work with young people to work out whether its main aim was sustainable. The alternatives would be to identify a suitable organisation to merge with – or even to close. "We asked our many young alumni for their opinion," she says. "They said we shouldn't close because they loved our work, and that became our mandate. I realised we did have a unique selling point - beneficiary-led intervention.

"Young people having the ability to change the world was always our strapline, and our role was to help shape the behaviour of young people through role models. We had a pool of thousands of young people who had received the award, but we hadn't tapped into this resource."

Since then, Ojo has changed the charity from an award-giving body to one that delivers services. It still runs the award, but has also developed, in collaboration with its youth board, a number of programmes with young people at their heart and a focus on educational and social inclusion.

These are: Peer-to-Peer and Progress+ Career Mentoring, which supports Diana Award holders to mentor students; the Diana Network Programme, which encourages youth social mobility by offering skills development opportunities; and the Anti-bullying Ambassadors Programme, in partnership with the Department for Education, to help tackle bullying in schools and communities.

Ojo says: "Winning the grant of almost £1m to develop the bullying programme in January 2013 was amazing. We had to demonstrate we were the best people for the job; we'd never had to do that before."

Nevertheless, it was still necessary to restructure the organisation to reduce costs and the staff team was halved to four. Programme funding was gained through corporate grants and partnerships with firms including Barclays and Deloitte, philanthropic awards, including one from the Variety Foundation, and the Big Lottery Fund. In the financial year to March 2014, the DA had an income of more than £700k.

"The next three to five years will be spent growing our programmes," says Ojo. "We're always looking at what else we can add. If it meets a need, we think about who might want to put money behind it. My advice is to speak to your user group and let your interventions be led by the need."

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