'There was no bigger risk than just staying as we were'

Scope's chief executive, Mark Atkinson, tells Andy Hillier why the charity's new five-year strategy will see it transfer many of its services, and more than half of its existing staff, to another, yet-to-be-named provider

Mark Atkinson
Mark Atkinson

How often have we heard charities use the word "radical" to describe their new strategies only for it to mean little more than a few tweaks to the way things have always been done? But in the case of the disability charity Scope, radical doesn't seem to go far enough.

In April, the charity announced its new five-year strategy, which - amid the usual slogans about harnessing the power of digital technology and tackling inequality - contained the bombshell that the charity planned to transfer its regulated and day services to another provider and, in the process, lose about 2,000 of its existing 3,200 staff. Its annual income of about £100m is also expected to fall by about 40 per cent in the short term.

The yet-to-be-named provider will take over Scope's adult social care business, which includes more than 20 residential homes and supported living and domiciliary care services, as well as its portfolio of services for children, which includes schools, colleges and a fostering agency.

Just for good measure, the charity is also selling its sizeable headquarters near Caledonian Road, north London, and plans to move into rented space from next May. Once the dust settles, Scope will focus its mission on social change and making sure that disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else.

The strategy is being driven by Mark Atkinson, Scope's 38-year-old former director of external affairs, who was appointed chief executive in the summer of 2015. "It was really obvious to the board and me that we needed a new strategy and to ask some soul-searching questions," he says. "I was appointed in May and it was at the July board meeting that I was asked to develop a new strategy. I wasn't new to the charity and the board made it clear that was the top priority. The terms of reference were broad, ranging from considering mergers to looking to grow certain parts of the organisation."

As usual, financial pressures played a part. The charity's spending outstripped its income each year between 2012 and 2015, leaving it with a deficit of £2.4m by March 2015. Last year it managed to cut this to £1.2m by taking some difficult choices, including making redundancies and freezing pay, but further action was needed. "It had become clear that the cost of doing nothing and trying to keep the organisation in broadly the same state was the big risk," says Atkinson. "There was no bigger risk than just staying as we were."

Relevance

Atkinson says the starting point of the new strategy was to pinpoint the relevance of Scope and how it could become more relevant to a larger proportion of the 13 million disabled people in the UK. "We went into that process as an organisation that had done iterative change, but hadn't really looked at the fundamental question of 'what's the point of Scope?'," he says.

Like most major charities, Scope has evolved greatly from its origins. It was founded in 1952 as the National Spastics Society by a group of parents determined to get a better education for children with cerebral palsy and create a more equal society. Gradually, it grew into one of the largest service providers for adults and children with disabilities. The change of name to Scope in 1994 was accompanied by a tentative broadening of its focus to tackling the barriers faced by all disabled people, not just those with cerebral palsy. By 2016, it was running its care and education services, plus a chain of 240 charity shops and its campaigning and research function. "We recognised that we were running four different types of organisation, all under the brand of Scope," says Atkinson. "We needed to focus in order to have greater reach and, we hoped, greater impact. We concluded that we wanted to be the organisation that was driving social change.

"We're enormously proud of the services we have run for almost 70 years, but are they driving social change and getting us closer to an ever more equal society? No they're not."

Atkinson says a decision is expected this autumn about which provider will take over its services, and the transfer is expected to be completed by the end of March. The preference would be to transfer all the services to one provider. "If you have lots and lots of transactions and different organisations, it does slow the process down," says Atkinson. "We'd also like to keep the family of services together, but we might end up with two or three providers."

Anxiety

Such large-scale reorganisations tend to create anxiety among the workforce and encounter resistance from the unions and beneficiaries and their families. Atkinson says the decision has not led to great backlash so far.

"If you're a member of staff, or your son or daughter goes to a school that we operate, or one of the care homes that we run, then clearly you're going to be interested in this," he says. "Concerns have generally been raised by families of those affected. I have to pay tribute to our staff who, for several months, have been operating under great uncertainty. I took the decision that we would be transparent about our strategy. If we were a commercial organisation, we might have done that process in private, walked in one day and said 'hey guys, you're no longer needed by us'."

Instead, Atkinson says, he stood up in front of staff to explain the new strategy and asked people to continue their important work: "We're four-and-a-half months down the road and I still can't say who that provider will be, so that's a big ask of our people."

He's acutely aware of the need to get the transfer right, saying it will be a critical test of Scope's commitment to being a values-based organisation. "We'll be judged by our ability to sensitively and diplomatically transfer those services," he says. "We're not a commercial organisation, and we're not in the business of mergers and acquisitions. We need to transfer them to an experienced and credible provider."

At a time when the effectiveness of charity boards is being questioned, Atkinson also praises the boldness of Scope's trustees and its chair, Andrew McDonald, the retired civil servant who was the first chief executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Atkinson says there was no way the charity could embark on such a large-scale transformation if the chair and he had not been "100 per cent locked in". "We speak regularly and have developed a close relationship," says Atkinson.

He describes McDonald as fearless and says he brings incredible ambition to Scope. "He has unquestionably propelled the organisation forward and given the board the confidence to take really big decisions," says Atkinson.

He says Scope now plans to invest heavily in a digital transformation programme, developing a new people strategy as well as a new brand. Other priorities Atkinson highlights include investing in future income generation, outsourcing payroll, developing new products and services around information and advice, and opening a series of new face-to-face employment services. A new impact framework will also be created with the help of the think tank NPC.

Future income-generation plans include expanding Scope's chain of charity shops and doing more business online. "We want to get bigger in that space because it delivers unrestricted income," says Atkinson.

The charity also wants to grow its consultancy service, which has helped employers such as Mars, Uber and Channel 4 to recruit disabled people or adapt their products and services to their needs. Then there's growing its income from fundraising. Scope was not among the 13 charities fined by the Information Commissioner last year for breaching data-protection rules, but Atkinson says it's rethinking its fundraising approach nonetheless, saying that in the charity sector there has been too much emphasis on "acquisition driven by volume".

"What really matters is attracting people to your organisation who really believe in what you're doing, whether that might be corporate partners or individuals," he says. "We need to diversify our fundraising income. We're currently very reliant on face-to-face and individual giving. We want to grow our relationships with corporate partners and we need to do more around the digital acquisition of donors."

To achieve that, Atkinson intends to put fundraising at the centre of the organisation. "In too many organisations, it's sat on the periphery," he says. "There are scores of examples in which there's a complete divorce between what a fundraising team does and what an organisation is trying to do. I don't want that at Scope."

Not surprisingly for someone who has spent the majority of his career working in PR and policy roles (see right), he is particularly excited about Scope having a more prominent role in trying to bring about improvements for disabled people. "We want to be a change agent," he says. "That's the business we're in. We want to change attitudes. We want to influence public policy and legislation. We want businesses and suppliers to be engaging better with disabled consumers."

'Transformative'

He cites the example of the lesbian and gay charity Stonewall, which he says has achieved phenomenal success in recent years. "The social change we have seen in the rights of gay people in our society has been transformative," says Atkinson. "I think disability has fallen behind and we have a lot to do to catch up. There has not been enough social change for the 13 million disabled people in the UK."

Atkinson says Scope has set itself a series of outcomes it wants to see within five years. This includes organisational targets in terms of the number of people it reaches and the impact it has on their lives, but also societal outcomes - such as halving the disability employment gap - that it can't achieve on its own.

"I genuinely want us to be leading the sector when it comes to impact," says Atkinson. "I want to challenge those who think it's all about who has the biggest turnover. It's not: it's about who has the biggest impact."

The new strategy will, however, rely on Scope's ability to work with other charities and organisations, something it has not always done well in the past. "We're very territorial," he says. "We're never going to know more about autism than the National Autistic Society or more about sight-loss than the RNIB. We want to work collaboratively. So often the language around competition misses the point. It's not focused on what disabled people and supporters need."

mark atkinson

FROM THE PRESS OFFICE TO THE BOARDROOM

Mark Atkinson was brought up in Lancaster and always wanted to work in the charity sector. "Even as a child I was interested in issues such as the environment and international development," he says. At university, he became involved in student politics and became national vice-president of the National Union of Students in 1999. "It was a great place to be and great training ground," he says.

He joined the Local Government Association as a senior press officer in 2001 and says that he remains a press officer at core. Two years in the LGA's busy press office was followed by a year as its "person" in Brussels. "It was the early 2000s and there were lots of stories about local authorities not being prepared for fridge mountains," he recalls.

He joined Citizen's Advice as head of press and public affairs in 2003. "It remains one of the best brands in the sector," says Atkinson. "I worked with some brilliant people."

After four years, he moved to the Youth Sport Trust as director of policy and communications, staying for two years. "I love sport, but what I learned from it is that I have to work in an organisation that has a big public policy interest," he says.

A move to Ambitious About Autism as director of external affairs followed in 2010. He loved his time there. "It was a challenger brand," he says. "It was entrepreneurial and creative. It didn't have all of the processes and systems of some charities."

In 2013 he applied successfully for the role of director of external affairs at Scope. "Scope was five times the size of Ambitious," he says. "It was a big, well-known brand. Its chief executive, Richard Hawkes, was also a big figure in the sector."

Atkinson worked closely with Hawkes, who gave him lots of responsibility. When Hawkes stepped down in summer 2015, the board appointed Atkinson as interim chief executive before offering him the job permanently. He believes the charity sector needs more chief executives who are communicators: "Ten years ago it was all about managing the accounts. Now the sector needs people who can explain purpose and vision, who are interested in impact and who can motivate supporters."

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