Foundations for a successful charity

By Nick Phillips, group chief executive, Community Impact Bucks

What is it that makes a successful organisation? It’s a question that I have been asked, in one form or another, by many people about to embark on the journey to start a charity or social enterprise or, in my past life, a business. It’s easy to trot out the tried and tested criteria we all know either from personal experience of the hundreds of books written about the subject of ‘good business’; vision, clear strategy, cashflow, knowing your customers…  and all that is as true of a charity as of a business.  However, there does seem to be a hierarchy of building blocks that are becoming increasingly apparent. We regularly see evidence of this “hierarchy” being absent in organisations that fail as we can see it clearly in the successes.

Debi, our brilliant projects leader, and her team recently carried out some research on successful community projects and it seems (early days in the research) that here too the same hierarchy holds true.

Firstly, it’s about leadership.  Without good leadership, however well-meaning the team and however great the idea, the organisation will not succeed long term. It sounds obvious, I know, but this is where the clarity of vision for the charity is so vital. It seems that where the chair, founder or CEO have that vision and passion, the organisation is more likely to succeed. Equally if that passion and vision are missing then the organisation can flounder.

The next layer in the hierarchy seems to be about the leadership having the right people around them. They can be volunteers or staff, but people who help carry the vison are filled with enthusiasm, energy and the right skills.

Next, it’s about the money and a plan to make money, not in quick bursts relying just on single grants but a long term sustainable plan. This can be from a structured service income or strategy for donations or a mix of all options.

The next level in the hierarchy is harder to define, but it seems that partnerships are vital. Sharing ideas, or even sharing resources, can be a game-changer to charities, particularly in the early stages of getting a charity off the ground.

The last identifiable feature seems to be going back to the ‘story’ I mentioned earlier, but this is the story of success – the impact. Being able to measure and articulate how the charity has changed lives or improved a situation is really important and the most successful organisations have got that down to a fine art.

I’ve identified these hierarchy priorities from anecdotal evidence, however it seems that research* backs up the findings. As most leadership in the community and charity sector starts with the trustees and chairs – who, let’s not forget, are volunteers – it is vital that we give trustees and chairs as much support as possible. That’s why CIB will be putting much of our resources behind helping charities find the right trustees with those leadership qualities. Later in the year I’ll run some events for chairs, trustees and CEO’s with speakers from different sectors and a chance to network and share ideas and support.

(By the way, I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been talking about good leadership – no mention of “strong and stable” anywhere – we may have heard enough of that!)

*Third Sector online/Fidelity survey of charities


Volunteering – striking at the heart of life’s key moments – harness it!

By Hazel Finney, Lead for Volunteering, Community Impact Bucks

I love my job. Everyday I speak to new people and get an insight into the unique challenges or opportunities that they are facing. With Volunteers’ Week fast approaching at the beginning of June, I’ve been mulling over the role that volunteering plays for the individual in today’s society, and come to the decision that in these uncertain times it remains a constant force for the good when navigating life’s choppy waters.

Making the decision to volunteer might seem trivial to some – to others, it represents the first hurdle surmounted in choosing a new path in life, one which can signal fresh hope and the possibility of new beginnings. The other day I spoke to a mother whose daughter had had to leave college due to ill health, but was interested in volunteering with animals; following a 10 minute call, where I outlined some options, her relief was palpable. Then there are the calls from widowed pensioners who are interested in befriending opportunities, or the people who have been referred by job centres to gain experience for their CVs. On the flip side, I am frequently contacted by people who work full-time but are interested in fitting a Trusteeship or specialist skilled volunteering role into their busy schedules. All this shows that volunteering can play a key part in everyone’s lives – regardless of their age, life stage or financial situation. And if it goes right, can lead to benefits far beyond anything that money can buy.

I volunteered for several months when I was looking to move from the private to the not-for-profit sector – and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s a low risk strategy to try something new, and can pay dividends if everything falls into place.

Working for the Buckinghamshire Volunteer Centre, I also support charities and community groups that involve volunteers, so am able to see the volunteering experience from both sides. In the monthly advice surgeries and training courses that I run, I frequently hear from Volunteer Co-ordinators and Managers about their internal wranglings with the HR department or management team about how they involve volunteers, and how disruptive this can be to recruiting volunteers. With this in mind, the key message that I would like to impart to charities and community groups as we approach Volunteers’ Week is this: please ensure that you have a well thought out volunteer recruitment process in place with clearly designated responsibilities – don’t leave a potential volunteer hanging, and deal with all enquiries promptly and efficiently – you never know, you may have just stumbled across the one person who can really help to turn your organisation around.

Lords’ Recommendation on supporting Volunteer Management & the Future of Trusteeship

By Hazel Finney, Lead for Volunteering, Community Impact Bucks

Public acknowledgement of a pressing need

As Lead for Volunteering at Community Impact Bucks, the nationally accredited Volunteer Centre for Buckinghamshire, I was thrilled to read in the recent report, Stronger charities for a stronger society published by the House of Lords, that support for volunteer management was a key recommendation:

“Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a strong potential volunteer base.  We recommend that Government guidance on public sector grants and contracts is amended to reflect this and set a standard for other funders.”

Based on a submission from the Association of Volunteer Managers’* (AVM) response to the Select Committee’s call for evidence last year, this recommendation is excellent news, and in the words of Debbie Usiskin, Chair of AVM, “Communicating the value and need for volunteer management as a recognised discipline is at the core of what AVM was set up to achieve.  Having such high profile confirmation of this is very welcome.”

The committee’s own evidence gathering supports AVM’s submission by revealing the difficulty faced by small charities to find funding for volunteer managers – which is certainly an issue encountered by the myriad of small charities and community groups in Buckinghamshire.

The role of volunteers – key findings

The report also examines the changing nature of volunteers and volunteering, and I list some of the highlights below:

  • Karl Wilding, Head of Governance and Policy at NCVO (who was the keynote at one of our recent Trustee Conferences): “We have moved away from what you might call a substitute labour model, where people give 35 or 40 hours a week to the same organisation over the course of their life, to one that is much more flexible and footloose and is based on the idea of micro-volunteering where people give relatively small amounts of time”
  • Younger people are placing greater importance on volunteering as part of gaining skills to help their employment prospects – “self-interested altruism”. This takes the form of one-off actions and digital volunteering rather than traditional volunteering activities of older generations, however, there are opportunities to encourage younger people to participate in more traditional volunteering, in order to boost their credentials for employment
  • Martin Sime from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) said: “if you could persuade the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) to remove all barriers to unemployed people volunteering, you would do charities a favour because we would be able to get a whole lot of people engaged in our work in a way that was good for them and good for us.”

Need help attracting and keeping volunteers?  Book a place on our interactive workshop on 23 May in Chiltern District.  Or come and see us at one of our advice surgeries.

Trustees – key findings

The report emphasises the importance of trustee skills and experience for good governance, against the backdrop of new funding models, digital tools and increased expectations of accountability and transparency.  It is imperative that a wide range of skills are represented on trustee boards, with finance and fundraising being a high priority – this is something that I encounter often in my work with charity and community group boards in Buckinghamshire, which frequently struggle to recruit treasurers.  In addition, a key role for today’s line up is a “digital trustee” – in the words of Sarah Atkinson from the Charity Commission, “Digital trustees can contribute significantly to making sure boards have the skills they need.”

A concern is raised about the lack of diversity among trustees, which in turn limits boards’ experience and knowledge.  So great is this concern, that the report recommends that the Government holds a public consultation on the possibility of introducing a statutory duty to allow employees of organisations over a certain size to take a limited amount of time off work to perform trustee roles.  This is coupled with the assertion that employers should be encouraged to give greater recognition to trustee roles in recruitment and progression of their staff.

For help building a board for the digital age, as well as other support with your trustee recruitment, visit the national organisation Reach Volunteering, our new partner.

Interested in finding our more about the roles and responsibilities of trustees? You may find our CPD-accredited course on 31 May in Monks Risborough of interest.

*AVM is an independent membership body that aims to support, represent and champion people in volunteer management in England regardless of field, discipline or sector. It has been set up by and for people who manage volunteers.  A member of AVM for several years, I would strongly recommend that anyone who manages or co-ordinates volunteers should consider joining this organisation which boasts a growing network of nearly 500 members.  As well as running a highly successful annual conference in London boasting speakers of international repute, there is an events’ programme throughout the year, monthly newsletter, active LinkedIn forum and much more.  Information on joining can be found here.

How effective are your trustees? 10 practical tips.

By Lynne Gilbert, Lynne Gilbert Consulting

Lynne Gilbert
Lynne Gilbert

Most of us have a good understanding of the vital role trustees perform in shaping, steering and regulating the 194,00 plus charities in the UK.  However, did you know that up to 75% of trustees leave at the end of their first term in office, according to research from The Trustee Fellowship (  It surprised me and begs the question… WHAT IS GOING ON?

We can all come up with reasons why this is happening. It is too easy to point a finger at things we cannot control such as political, social and economic factors not forgetting personal reasons. But what about actions we do have control over and can take responsibility for?  With that very thought in mind I have come up with what I feel are 10 practical tips for getting the best from your trustees, winning over your new trustees and increasing the chances that trustees do not vote with their feet!!

This is by no means a definitive list. Whether you are an existing trustee, a new trustee, the chair or a chief executive this is relevant and of help. See this as a working document that you can measure your own board’s behaviour against, use it as a tool to stimulate discussion or as a guide to identify and implement change. Of course add your own thoughts and ideas. However, there is one vital element you must have to engage with this…..‘willingness’. How willing are you to have a thorough, objective and rational look at what is going on in your trustee board?  Can you look at the current situation and identify what needs to be better and take responsibility for doing something about it? The list is below. Take a look:

  1. Proper Preparation: Looking for a new trustee then be sure you know what you are looking for and why. We are talking skills audit, a well-defined recruitment, interview, induction and development process. Above all make sure before you start the formal process that they are right for this type of volunteer role and they are doing It for the right reasons.   Heed the words of Benjamin Franklin “If you fail to prepare you prepare to fail”
  2. Strong leadership: Effective, strong leadership will get results. How effective is the chair? Who is leading who on the board? What is the relationship between the chair and the chief executive relationship?
  3. High performing team: Invest time in turning a group of people into a high performing team.  It takes time and will not just happen from meeting 4/5 times a year.  Make sure your team is not one where 20% of the people do 80% of the work.  Everyone needs a role, responsibilities, deliverables and accountability.
  4. Understand  your legal requirements:  Prevent surprises for your trustees and ensure  that they understand and know what they are taking on and their legal responsibilities.  Make available all relevant up-to-date documentation, regulatory legislation, the governing document and terms of reference.
  5. Know all about your charity: Trustees have an obligation to be up-to-date and well informed about all aspects of their charity.  The more the trustees know about the work of the charity, the staff and the beneficiaries the more engaged they will become.
  6. Encourage creativity: Encourage and celebrate different and new ideas. A ‘can do’ mind set is invigorating and motivational for a board.  You will stand a stronger chance of retaining diversity amongst the board and drawing in younger members.
  7. Great meetings: Do not squander your precious 4-6 meetings a year by running poorly planned, poorly chaired meetings that leave attendees feeling that this was a waste of their time. How effective are your meetings?
  8. Communication that works: Effective communication builds strong relationships.  How you communicate in-between meetings is just as important as during.
  9. Effective decision making: Ensure that all trustees understand and agree on the decision making process.  Ambiguity and misunderstanding is destructive to the cohesiveness of the board.
  10. Make it enjoyable: People volunteer their time and skill to make a difference and to feel valued but they also want it to be enjoyable. It has been said if it isn’t enjoyable it isn’t worth doing! How enjoyable is it being a trustee on your board?

Lynne has had a successful commercial background and works as a management development consultant and executive coach.  She has combined her consultancy work with supporting the charity sector for the past 22 years. She currently is trustee on a couple of charities, as well as chairs the Brian Murtagh charitable trust. There she has an advisory role and spends her time conducting strategic reviews and assessing trustee effectiveness.

The Social Value Act: A great opportunity for the voluntary sector

By Grant Hayward, Director of Collaborent and specialist in cross sector collaboration


The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires, by law, those who commission public services to consider how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits. It’s been around for a while now but has been criticised for not having real “teeth”. Recently though, it’s really gaining traction with 75% of local authorities now aware and taking action.

I was overwhelmed to see and hear about the impressive progress being made by pioneers in this field whilst attending the Social Value Summit in London on 7th February. Award winning examples of the ways the Social Value Act is being used to bring organisations together across sectors to address social needs, plug gaps in funding and create real business opportunities for the private sector. And that’s what I am all about!

It was also encouraging to hear Rob Wilson, Minister for Civil Society, announce at the Summit another review of the Social Value Act. This, coupled with his recent announcement to help small charities win contracts is all good news to the voluntary sector. But these opportunities won’t just be served up on a plate. It’s the shrewd organisations in the voluntary sector that are grasping the chance to understand and leverage these opportunities to position themselves in prime position to benefit.

The opportunities will vary greatly, depending upon your organisation, your activities and services. But here are just a couple of examples: You might be commissioned to deliver services and could enhance your chances of winning contracts by building and demonstrating the Social Value you add over and above the services you provide. Or, you could use the Social Value Act to make you more attractive to businesses who are either providing services to the public sector directly, or have someone doing so within their supply chain. Most don’t even know it yet, but they will increasingly be seeking to demonstrate the ways in which they are adding Social Value in some way.

So, what Social Value do you add and how can you use it to gain competitive advantage and make your charity more attractive?

Two interesting numbers…

By Nick Phillips, group chief executive, Community Impact Bucks

Recently I’ve seen two interesting numbers relating to Buckinghamshire that have really made me think about our county; 43 and 11.  Forty-three is from the national homelessness figures and 11 from the State of Rural Services Survey.

Community Impact Bucks has a mission to improve the lives of the people of Bucks through working with charities and communities. We review the national data about rural living and guide and support community groups on ways to develop sustainable projects for a better life. (Training, events, community transport projects, good neighbours schemes, rural housing etc).

Buckinghamshire ranks as the 3rd most affluent county in the UK outside London. So it was a surprise to see the National Rough Sleeping Data record that on one night chosen at random for a survey, we had 43 individuals sleeping rough on our street in one snapshot count. While writing this I am looking at the rain pelting down and thinking of those people possibly huddling in doorways in our market towns of High Wycombe, Chesham, Aylesbury, Buckingham…

I was recently speaking to the people who run vital charities which are there to give hope and a lifeline to local homeless people.  They told me that this figure of 43 is an under count.  In reality, those few people counted are the very tip of an iceberg where many more are sleeping on sofas at friend’s houses or families who are having to stay with friends or relatives to stay off the street. When I expressed shock at the number of rough sleepers in Bucks and the comparative wealth of the county I was told that it can be harder to get services in counties where the deprivation is so concentrated. There are more people living rough in High Wycombe than Newcastle! The homeless charities then told me that things are getting worse with rough sleeping in Bucks rising by over 30%, caused by a combination of rent prices, fewer landlords accepting people on benefits and changes in benefit payments; all making it harder for people to actually pay the rents.

The second number of interest was the Rural Services Report (Rural England) that identified the average house price in Bucks being 11 times greater than the average salary. The average house price in Beaconsfield is £980,000 according to some surveys from 2015.

Both these numbers reflect real life situations and they feel incongruous and unsustainable.

Buckinghamshire is such a beautiful rural county and in some cases well-served by services but most of us just don’t see the real disparity that the fantastic organisations like Wycombe Homeless Connection and Aylesbury Homeless Action deal with every day.

Younger trustees: lessons from students’ unions

By Richard Brooks, Vice President (Union Development) at the National Union of Students and Chair of NUS Charitable Services Limited.


It was a real pleasure to present recently at the Community Impact Bucks Trustee Conference. I spoke about the benefits of having younger trustees on boards. I argued it increases both the effectiveness of the charity and the sustainability of the sector.

I wanted to share learnings from students’ unions (SUs) – student-led charities with a major difference: students constitute the majority on the trustee board. This makes us a slight anomaly within the charity sector. Where the average charity trustee is aged 59, a few hundred students’ unions are bucking the trend – between ourselves handing the reins to an estimated 1,500 16-34 year olds each year.

As Vice President of NUS my job is to lead the consultancy our staff deliver to students’ union trustee boards. We are the experts in how SU trustee boards work, including how they have responded to challenges and opportunities brought by younger trustees.

To quote the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness (2014): “On paper, the SU operating model – effectively student and staff teams with a board comprised of largely inexperienced members who are also the key operating officers – is fundamentally flawed and should not work. Yet it does. Arguably better than other charities which have operating officers on their boards.”

Here are my four key reflections for the wider sector:

  1. Most students’ unions only became charities within the last 10 years. Even though the model isn’t perfect for us, we have benefitted enormously from standardising governance arrangements. This has allowed talent, knowledge and good practice to percolate into students’ unions from the wider sector, as well ensuring good career progression for our people. One particular strength of the charity model is it provides for a mixed board of students and lay trustees. This allows us to balance not just skills gaps by co-opting external experts, as is common, but also to form our boards in response to our key challenges. For example, we cannot avoid having high turnover rates – by design SUs have a different board composition every academic year – but this challenge is offset by recruiting lay trustees with longer terms and the duty to provide continuity.
  1. Younger trustees will come and go. Rapid turnover must not be feared. Our experience is that their ideas, energy and lack of pretentions will more than make up for any disruption the board might face. In any case it doesn’t require superpowers for a board to manage (and even embrace) a higher rate of change, a decent level of self-awareness and an appetite for disruptive thinking is more than enough.
  1. Younger boards need to be underpinned by constant induction and development activity. So by necessity students’ unions have developed a rolling programme of development for their trustees. But all trustees benefit from common activities such as team-building, introspection, audits, mentoring, coaching, independent reviews, strategic planning, mediation, conflict resolution, and peer support. Like any charities, cash is tight so activities have to be arranged on a shoestring budget but the key investment is in trustees making time for these activities in and out of meetings.
  1. Younger trustees are inexperienced and need support. However, this will not be the burden you think it is. This is an opportunity for trustees to act smarter, ask better questions of their organisation, and ditch lazy habits. Students’ unions have seen it can be a sharp wake-up call for any board to realise what shared responsibility means – that all trustees need have the right information to make decisions. Reams of raw data and no analysis are useless. This is brought sharply into focus in the context of an 18 year-old presented with intricate financial issues. Their inexperience does not release them from legal responsibility but instead demands that complex issues are broken down and presented free from jargon and obfuscation. The important point is every board we’ve seen which takes these issues of clarity and accessibility seriously will be rewarded with a step-change in performance. Asking smarter questions and ensuring everyone understands the answers inevitably helps organisations make the best use of resource, makes meetings more efficient and ensures malpractice is picked up early.

Finally, if you’re looking for great younger trustees to join your organisation the student movement is well endowed with them. We work with various sector organisations including Trustees Unlimited and TrusteeWorks.


Charity Accounting – a chore or a tool?

By Paul Hedley, head of resources, Community Impact Bucks


For all of us in the charitable sector, the question of money is never far from the front of our minds.  How do we deliver more with less?  Where can I raise the money to do this project, or to help that group?  What happens if my existing funding is reduced or disappears?  Such drivers, allied to the clear desire in the sector to concentrate on delivery, can easily have the effect of pushing the job of maintaining good accounts to the back of the queue.

Such a situation has two potential side effects, both of which are potentially serious for any organisation, whether large or small.  Firstly, potential funders are increasingly requiring detailed financial information to support bids: not only project based budgets, but detailed financial records of the organisation more generally.  Similarly, the reporting requirements of funded projects are becoming more stringent as the available money is squeezed, and funders have to justify their decisions to their own stakeholders.  Never has it been more important both to keep good financial records, and to use them pro-actively.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, good decision-making requires understanding of available resources: in short, people and funds.  Without that understanding, neither Trustees nor Management can set sensible goals, assess progress or commit to significant decisions.  Or, if they do act without that understanding, the chances of making good decisions are significantly reduced, and that affects both the organisation and its beneficiaries.

How many third-sector organisations could benefit from making a switch of mindset in this regard?  How would it look if accounting was seen not as drudgery that we could all do without, but as a positive tool for good decision-making?

Work until you drop – and you may not actually drop quite so soon!

By Nick Phillips, group chief executive, Community Impact Bucks

Last week there was a fair bit of media coverage about England’s chief medical officer calling on people aged between 50 and 70 to keep working to stay healthy.

In a report on the health of the so-called baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, Prof Dame Sally Davies said the physical and mental health benefits of being employed or volunteering “should not be underestimated”.

She said working helps people feel fulfilled and less isolated.

“Staying in work, volunteering or joining a community group can make sure people stay physically and mentally active for longer.

“The health benefits of this should not be underestimated.”

The report even says that volunteering can be better for you than exercise.

Earlier this week I was talking to the Chamber of Commerce in Chesham (sorry for running over my allotted time again, by the way!) about volunteering and the benefits to business about having a workforce engaged in volunteering. Better health, better morale and evidence says better profits – but even once retired it seems that volunteering is good for you.

It is really easy to find out what is on offer go to

It’s got to beat working!

Musings on an older population…

By Nick Phillips, group chief executive, Community Impact Bucks

smiling older women

Clive James, the Australian journalist and writer (and many other things), once stated that ‘all good poets are frail and that to be a good poet one must be frail’. (If not those words exactly then close to it.) I thought about this for some time and challenged the statement in my mind with Wordsworth, who by all accounts must have been pretty nifty under foot to go dashing across the Lake District, and the war poets like Brooke, Owen and many others who were far from physical frailty when putting pen to paper. But perhaps Clive James was right in a way. Perhaps he was simply referring to the manifestation of age and experience as frailty.

We know that in Bucks we are looking at having a population of 115,000 over 65-year-olds and 15,000 over 85-year-olds in the next ten years. With an ageing population comes many challenges.  According to Dementia UK this will mean at least 1 in 14 having to live with Alzheimer’s. Whenever these statistics are spoken of at a national or local level it seems in the context of an economically burdensome group of people who are draining the resources of the population.  But are we looking at this situation the right way?  Are we actually emerging into a world of wisdom? Is this a great opportunity for us to listen, to take time to share in the lessons learned over the decades? Are we in Buckinghamshire lucky enough to have a “wisening”, rather than ageing, population? (Or at least a pool of the greatest poets?)

As we plan for the next ten or twenty years, I think there is something in the way we look at, and respond to, the changes in demographics. Older people may not want to continue with paid work in their retirement but many volunteer their time and skills and, after 16-24-year-olds, our over 65’s are the greatest source of volunteering in Bucks. We may all learn to rely on the ageing population more than we think.