When the sight-loss charity the RNIB set up a new department called RNIB Solutions four years ago, it was hoped it would help to eliminate the charity's deficit and increase the number of beneficiaries using its services.
RNIB Solutions consists of two main areas: charitable services such as delivering talking books to the blind and partially sighted; and commercial services, such as making magazines and newspapers suitable for people with optical impairments.
The problem is that it lost money. In four out of the past five years, the department has posted a loss, according to an internal document seen by Third Sector, and in 2016/17 it spent £16.6m against an income of £12.4m - a loss of £4.2m. The department employed 261 full-time-equivalent staff at the start of this summer, but in October 52 jobs were lost, although only 23 members of staff were made redundant because many were found other jobs at the charity.
The changes at Solutions come in the wake of wider changes at the RNIB: earlier this year a merger with Action for Blind People was finalised and a restructure in which 100 people left the charity, 70 of them through voluntary redundancy, was completed.
Scott Lynch, managing director of RNIB Solutions, tells Third Sector there were some mitigating factors behind the losses.
Certain free or subsidised services run by Solutions, such as the charity's talking books services, proved more popular than anticipated and the income from the commercial work did not cover the costs. The talking books service attracted an extra 10,000 users in 2016, a 24 per cent increase on the year before.
"We expected that the commercial business would grow even bigger and be even more profitable," says Lynch. "What happened is that our ambition was greater than what we achieved, but it's not like the commercial business had failed. In fact, it was successful in bringing new income into the charity that wasn't there before. It just wasn't enough to cover the cost of running our charitable activities."
Five key areas
Lynch says that Solutions will now focus on five key areas for beneficiaries and commercial income: information and content; public transport; financial services; retail and products; and educational content. There is a new leadership team in place, says Lynch, and some roles have changed in line with the new structure.
Lynch became managing director in March this year and has previous experience in the charity sector, as a consultant, and the private sector, where he worked as a director for the online retailer Amazon.
Before that, he worked at WH Smiths during a period of significant change for the company, and he has drawn on that experience in his new role.
"I was at WH Smiths when we had to cut 25 per cent of the workforce and shrink the business significantly because it needed to change its model," says Lynch. "It has been very successful since it did that. Solutions is delivering consumer services. I've spent most of my career delivering services and running businesses on behalf of customers, so bringing in knowledge about how to do that well is helpful."
So were Solutions' struggles caused by a failure of the original premise? Lynch says not, arguing that it is more a failure to predict the future. "We were developing new ways to access our content, we were running the existing services and then we were building and growing the commercial services," he says. "That was all going fine: the first and second years were pretty good.
"But it became apparent that the commercial business wasn't going to grow as fast as we'd hoped. Some of the income we got was one-off in nature - consultancy, for example. When I joined earlier this year it became clear that some of the income wasn't repeatable and the scale of it wasn't what we expected, so we needed to cut our cost-base accordingly."
As part of the changes to Solutions, Lynch says, the charity will continue to innovate and look at new ways of delivering services in a more sustainable way. Digital platforms will play an important role, helping to increase access to books and Braille services, but in a cheaper and more sustainable way for the charity itself. There will also be an increased focus on examining costs, risks and opportunities on a quarterly basis to ensure that Solutions becomes sustainable.
Lynch says he wants more of a focus on customer service, akin to what exists in the private sector. "One of the things I've talked about in a document provided for staff is that it is not just about the cost-base," he says. "That's an important part of it, but it is also about setting us up to better serve our customers.
"Some of our services aren't running as well as they should do. I approach that from the private sector view that if you don't give customers an amazing service, they vote with their feet and go elsewhere. We need to make sure we are doing that for each of our services, so the focus for the year ahead will be on the basics."
Despite the difficulties the RNIB has experienced, Lynch believes diversification remains crucial to charities.
"Charities that rely on their traditional income models will find things getting harder and harder," he says. "But you should diversify cautiously. You can't add lots of cost into your business if you are not sure about the income that will be coming in. You do have to innovate on behalf of your customers, so making sure that whatever you are doing is customer-driven is very important."