Chairing a charity is tricky at the best of times, requiring both the time and the ability to steer a path between the needs and demands of beneficiaries, staff and funders. At difficult times, it takes exceptional skill and dedication.
Helen Baker, chair of Advance Housing and Support, has offered just that. The charitable housing association, which provides housing, employment opportunities and support to people with learning difficulties and mental health problems, has had a turbulent year, in which its chief executive had to step down unexpectedly because of illness. The charity has also faced severe funding cuts and restructured as a result.
Baker guided Advance skilfully through these obstacles, giving clear, determined leadership and support to the board, to staff and to the interim chief executive.
Baker's successes included helping the charity to win a £15m contract from the Department for Work and Pensions for its Work Choice employment programme and overseeing a merger with the adult learning disability charity Hilt.
Baker introduced measures to improve governance at Advance, such as annual appraisals, twice-yearly awaydays and a clear governance plan. She initiated service-user and tenant involvement on the board, personally coaching service users to enable them to participate.
"She is an inclusive chair who takes care to ensure that all members of the board are able to participate and contribute as equal partners within an environment of mutual respect and collaboration," the charity said in its awards entry.
The judges were impressed by Baker's level-headed and professional approach. "It can be difficult for housing associations to be strategic, rather than concerned about bricks and mortar," said Elizabeth Balgobin, chair of Voice4Change England. "But Helen Baker has focused on the charity's outcomes and put in place a clear strategy."JUDGING PANEL
Elizabeth Balgobin - Chair, Voice4Change England
Mike Hudson - Founder and director, Compass Partnership
Linda Laurance - Consultant
Judith Rich - Consultant
Sir David Bell, Crisis
Richard Tyndall, Connexions Thames Valley