Little Green Pig asked Practical Governance to support them with an organisational review, which included facilitating a whole team away day on a barge in Brighton Marina. Director Ella Burns and Chair Pete Lawson shared with us their insights on the journey of Little Green Pig up to that day, as well as their hopes for the future and their learnings for other organisations, funders and those providing support along the way.
Little Green Pig was borne out of one woman’s belief in the power of the imagination. Ella Burns started out in 2008 offering after-school writing clubs for children and young people in Brighton. She is now director of a thriving charity supporting over 2500 young people both in and out of school, training 250 volunteers and working with writers, artists and local community organisations. “We are increasing our numbers, building our reputation and income, and we have good people involved in the growth of the charity” Ella tells us.
On the surface Ella’s journey appears to be plain sailing, but she has encountered some stormy seas along the way. “When we first started out we needed enthusiastic supporters on the Board. As we grew, we tried to fill the professional skills gaps. That was absolutely necessary and added huge value, but we perhaps got the balance slightly wrong. As well as those professional skills we also needed more people embedded in what we do to challenge us effectively”
“Then around two years ago we took our eye off the ball in terms of delivery to young people. We got too caught up in one potential idea of opening a physical shop and workshop borrowed from larger charity models – rather than how we could continue to develop our own approach that suited our circumstances and size. We should have realised earlier that the vision of a shop was not something that would be right for us, although we may look into the possibility of a ‘writing centre’ in the future.”
It was around this time Ella recruited Pete Lawson as the new Chair of the Board.
“When I joined the team it was obvious the organisation wasn’t quite clear on what it wanted to do. I could come in fresh and be completely honest, name the elephant in the room and be clear that the current direction wasn’t working. We weren’t in a good financial position – potentially 2-3 months away from pulling the shutters down.” Pete shares with us.
“Our first step was to get the team talking- everybody wanted to move forward and pull together. We parked the idea of the shop and instead focussed solely on expanding and improving what we knew worked – our creative workshop programme. This helped us not only achieve more financial security but grow our reach and quality”.
Two years later the charity received some funding from the Big Lottery Fund to undertake an organisational review. This support was offered not mandated, so who they should work with and exact objectives weren’t specified. “By this time we had started to take back a bit of ownership of the charity and felt stronger and clearer. We were ready to open our doors to get some support.” Pete continues.
“We were very specific about our hopes and fears for the review and were very careful in our decision to bring Practical Governance on board. I was wary because I’ve had bad experiences in the past working with consultants. I wanted them to feel like part of the journey not just ‘oh we’ve got the consultants coming in today to tell us what to do’.”
Ella went on to explain; “Working with the Board and staff, the review was a chance to step back again and focus in on the vision and mission of the charity. It allowed us to explore our values and what they might mean in practice – how we make decisions and how the Board and staff team work together. Practical Governance took the time to really understand us and where we are coming from. Working with them has helped us develop a strong framework to look at big decisions in the future and be clearer and more aligned about why we do what we do, what makes us unique and what our values are. This opportunity came at the right time for us, we have more stability and security, and can really start thinking about growth beyond Brighton & Hove”.
Here’s to a strong future for this inspiring small charity – with less stormy seas and more plain sailing ahead.
Key learnings from Ella and Pete
For small charities
- Embrace the winds of change: It’s easy to set off on a fixed path and with clear expectations around your organisational strategy, but things change over time. It’s important to regularly step back, refer back and check that you haven’t slipped off track or forgotten what you stand for as an organisation.
- Refresh your crew: You may need to refresh Board and staff members to bring diversity of thought and different perspectives to your organisation at different times. Don’t be afraid to make those choices, or bring in external views – but do be picky about who you work with and be clear about what you want to achieve.
- Don’t try to steer the ship yourself: The provision of funding that allows organisations the time and space to reflect is incredibly valuable. Give them the option to pick a time, approach and who they work with, rather than mandate or restrict the process too much. If you do so, it is more likely to be resisted or become a ‘tick box’ exercise.
For those providing support
- Learn the ropes: Successful organisational reviews are built on a real understanding, not just of the organisation and its operating environment, but on the individuals involved and their relationships. If a review is to add value and lead to practical action, the engagement of those individuals and their sense of ownership is of paramount importance. Adopting a standard approach which isn’t built on this understanding will rarely add value.