Terry Ryall intends to sail up the east coast of the US when she steps down as chief executive of the youth volunteering charity vInspired this month. Her eight years at the helm of the charity should stand her in good stead, given the choppy waters it has navigated in recent times.
Called v until 2011, it was set up by the Labour government in 2006 to encourage a million young people to volunteer. After favourable winds for its first five years, its income plunged from about £54m a year to £5.3m in 2012 after the change of government.
So did the size of the cut come as a shock? "V was a five-year plan and we were wise enough to know that no one would make that level of investment again," says Ryall. "When the first five years were coming to an end, we were already planning to change our status and focus."
The charity's accounts might show that its income fell off a cliff, she says, but the picture is more complex. "About 94 per cent of the money that was allocated to v went straight out of our doors and into the sector," she says. "There were about 500 voluntary organisations that benefited financially. I don't think there was enough recognition of that."
For its first five years, the charity ran two brands: v, which she calls a "sector and government-facing" grant-making arm, and vInspired, which worked directly with young people. Since 2011, it has operated only the latter. The loss of its grant-making function led Ryall to cut about half of its 60 staff in 2011. She also had to lay off a further 90 recruited to work on a schools programme only six months after the scheme, commissioned by Labour, was introduced. "That was bitterly painful and a wasted opportunity," she says.
Keeping the charity in existence has required some political manoeuvring. Before the election, Ryall says, she was careful to keep on the right side of Nick Hurd, then the shadow minister for civil society, and when he became minister, a delegation from the charity visited him. "We did a pitch to him about the assets we had built up and persuaded him that it would be a waste if they were allowed to go by the wayside," she says. "He agreed. He gave us a four-year grant to help us keep the organisation going."
The strategic grant is worth £4m over four years, but the charity has supplemented that by successfully bidding to run parts of the government's National Citizen Service youth programme and securing funding from other sources, such as the Social Action Fund and the private sector. Next year, Ryall says, income will be about £10m, almost double what it was in 2012. "From facing a cliff wall to having that level of income within three years is not bad going," she says.
In fact, losing public money has made the charity become more inventive, she says. Ideas to date include a service called Task Squad that introduces the 370,000 volunteers on vInspired's databases to employers seeking young people to carry out short-term, hourly paid tasks. Employers pay £12 an hour, of which £8 goes to the young person and the rest to vInspired.
The charity is also looking into opening shops run by young people for young people. The shops, Ryall says, might sell surplus stock from other outlets and products made by young people themselves. "We've produced a business plan and, if we get the model right, it has the potential to generate a long-term income stream," she says.
For two years, the charity has been delivering part of the NCS programme in a consortium led by the private sector firm Serco. Ryall says the relationship has not been the disaster that some predicted. "At the time we went in, the mood music was all about the big, bad private sector stealing all of this stuff at the expense of the voluntary sector," she says. "That has not been my experience. The relationship has been difficult - but if it wasn't for Serco's deep pockets, its ability to invest in putting things right when they've gone wrong and to provide cash flow for smaller voluntary organisations, those organisations wouldn't be there at all."
So does Ryall pine for the Labour years when grants were in abundance? "Would it have been great to continue in the same vein? Of course it would," she says. "But it has also been hugely liberating to determine what space in the sector we now fill." She adds that in some ways the end of ready government funding is a good thing for the sector.
"The voluntary sector tends to wallow in the belief that because we do nice things, the things we do are worth investing in - but that's not always the case," she says. "Now there is a whole movement coming into the voluntary sector that is establishing theories of change and having an impact that matches. I think that will raise the game of charitable organisations and help beneficiaries."
2006: Chief executive, vInspired
2001: Divisional director, the Prince's Trust
1997: Chief executive, Girlguiding
1991: Deputy and then principal youth officer, West Sussex County
1987: Youth officer, Barnet Council
1982: Youth worker, Hertfordshire County Council
1980: Manager, Asian Girls Hostel, Coventry