Peer Support isn’t just about service delivery

After another hard few months of trying to juggle priorities – competing work issues and a busy family life, I’ve been thinking again about how important it is for charity leaders to get the right support.

This week I was lucky enough to be given a charity place at the Bird Board Summer lunch. It was really refreshing to see over 100 women who run their own businesses come together to show their support for each other. In smaller groups they work together, pooling their knowledge to problem solve in a safe but structured environment.

I think its something we need more of in our sector. If you are lucky like me you’ll have a supportive board and staff team and there is some excellent capacity building, networking and training out there from membership organisations such as ACEVO, and charitable foundations like the Cranfield Trust.

But we also need the ability to be able to speak to others with similar experiences about specific issues which are often time critical. And, we need to be able to do that without feeling we are showing weakness to potential competitors.

I’ve been really lucky over the last few years. A long standing partnership with two other organisations has brought the added bonus of two experienced and supportive colleagues who have been generous in sharing their knowledge and advice. Over the last year, the development of the Women’s Lives Leeds partnership has expanded that support. Twelve brilliant women prepared to share and advise, sympathise and empathise, and just as importantly, celebrate each others’ successes.

I think that sometimes the smaller the charity, the harder it can be to access this kind of peer support. Leaders of smaller charities are often tied up in internal issues, Jacquies of all trades, sometimes delivering direct support to service users. It’s difficult for them to find the time to network and make links with their local counterparts.

I don’t have the answer to this but I do think that acknowledging that its lonely at the top is a start. It doesn’t matter if your turnover is £50k or £50 million the responsibility lies with you and sometimes that responsibility weighs very heavily. As charities we have a duty to spend public money wisely and with accountability, we must always put our service users or beneficiaries at the heart of what we do and we must never lose the value base from which we operate.

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Change is such hard work

If you work in the voluntary sector, you’re sure to see ‘Change Management’ as an essential skill in any senior role these days. But how do you quantify such a skill in in a sector where the change has become constant?

Those of us who have been in the charity world a while will be used to the three year cycle of ‘review, restructure, rest’. In bigger charities sometimes one of the larger consultancies would be brought in, in smaller ones a change of leadership could trigger the process.

These days, and particularly for smaller charities, the change cycle has become constant. The short-termism of many funding streams, changing requirements of public sector commissioning and difficulty in raising core costs means that part or all of our organisations’ are in a state of uncertainty most of the time.

This is the new way of being. So how do we keep on keeping on? How do we keep our staff motivated and performing? How do we ensure that we continue to deliver high quality services? And, how do we manage the stress ourselves?

It seems to always be the answer but to me communication has to be the key. Staff need to know what is going on, and if there is information you cant share with them, its best to be open and tell them you don’t know or cant tell them. If staff feel kept in the dark it grows resentment, concern and potentially the spread of completely wrong information borne out of supposition and lack of information.

A couple of weeks ago I told my team to take their time to catch their breath over the summer because come the autumn more change is coming. They have known this for ages but sometimes everyone needs permission to take a minute. This change will come on top of a year where they have all coped admirably with smaller changes, the end of one project and start of another, a new group of volunteers, changes to policies and procedures.

And me? I’ve benefited greatly from the support of a strong Board, but also my counterparts in other organisations. Talking to someone with similar experiences, who really understands makes a massive difference.

It doesn’t matter what the change is, in my opinion expansion can be more tricky and potential damaging than contraction if not managed well.

There is some great writing and training out there on change management from organisations like Clore Social Leadership and NPC. My advice is, take all the support you can get and it will help you better support others.