Governance crisis? Help is at hand!


This week the press have jumped on the news that the Charity Commission has given an official warning to the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline. There has been a massive conflict of interest that hasn’t been managed properly – the founder and her daughter have been paid – and some exceptionally poor financial management.

Here I look at the problems faced by smaller charities and those with relatively inexperienced Boards, and note what support is out there.


How has this happened?

Many are posing the question, “how has this gone unnoticed for so long?” after the charity’s annual accounts show a decline in spending on charitable activities in three consecutive years from 6% to 3.4% to 2.8%. To give a sense of perspective, the average spend on charitable activities is 83%.

Perhaps this wasn’t spotted because the Charity Commission is underfunded to deal with the increase in inquiries and investigations, nevermind proactively seeking out poor governance practice? Or perhaps the Board weren’t equipped to managing the charity? Or perhaps there was a change in accounting method – how did charitable spend jump from 2.8% of total expenditure to over 98% in the just one financial year? That’s some impressive turnaround management or interesting accounting.

Gina Miller, Founder and Chair of the True and Fair Foundation (and of Brexit fame) has suggested there be a minimum (percentage of) spend on charitable activities. Thankfully the Charity Commission has rebutted this, with a statement reflecting the diversity of charities and consideration of their life-stage being taken into account – reminiscent of the response the Commission and others gave the True and Fair Foundation’s report ‘A Hornet’s Nest’ early last year.

Maybe it’s time to revisit Dan Pallota’s TED Talk: The way we think about charity is dead wrong?


Charities are specialist

Charities are specialist and need managing accordingly to be legal and effective. My reflection on working with small charities is that people tend to join a Board because they are motivated by the cause. They are not typically from a charity management background, and then find themselves up to their eyeballs in CC guidance, or conversely, not! Passion for – and knowledge – of the cause is extremely important but how effective is it if the infrastructure isn’t there to deliver it? As Wendy Watson, Founder of NHBCH stated:

“Mistakes were made. I’m not a businesswoman, I’m somebody passionate that wants to keep the helpline going and find a way to raise some money to do that.”

The usual brief I receive is, “we need some help developing our fundraising strategy”. It’s true, but the precursor to that is clarifying organisational purpose, honing down their priorities from doing everything in their causal area to a few strategic areas where they can genuinely make a difference. This strategic direction should come from the Board and highlights the need for a sound understanding of charity governance.

The main issues for NHBCH seem to be around managing conflict of interest (CC29) and financial management (Charity finances: trustee essentials (CC25). It’s not illegal for family members to be on the Board or work for the organisation, but conflict of interest – including perceived conflict of interest – must be managed. The governing documents detail how conflicts of interest are managed, and how and when meetings are conducted (i.e. decision making). Adhering to the governing document therefore ensures trustees operate legally. Given the jump in NHBCH’s charitable expenditure in the last financial year, Charity reporting and accounting: the essentials, March 2015 (CC15c) might also have been a useful resource.


Help is at hand

Trustees in large charities often have the support of a paid-for governance function ensuring things operate smoothly: trustee inductions, Board papers are in on-time and circulated, minutes are taken and approved, queries are resolved within working hours. These organisations are therefore well placed to capitalise on the non-charity sector experience that these trustees bring. But for smaller organisations and those with less experience of charity management, this in-house support is missing.

Charity Commission guidance is publicly available and in becoming a charity trustee you are agreeing to comply with it. It’s pleasing to see the new Charity Governance Code progressing themes every trustee should be mindful of. (NCVO’s blog on the Charity Governance Code covers everything you need to know about the Code.) But for those organisations reflecting on their governance as a result of lack of funding or that they think they may need to close, how pressing are these themes? They need a fix, and strengthening governance at point of crisis feels a little too late.

So here’s a quick summary of what you could do if you’re new to a Board.

  1. Charity Commission Guidance. An excellent place to start for new trustees of those needing a refresher, is The essential trustee: what you need to know (CC3).
  2. KnowHowNonProfit. Free info! Check out the Governance section.
  3. Small Charities Coalition. Free trustee matching, finding and networks. And seminars taking place across the country, including this one on Governance in Chester in October.
  4. NCVO membership. It’s worth the membership fee. Access tools such as the Governance Wheel (easy to use and gives a snapshot of governance strengths and weaknesses), the Trustee Bank (free trustee recruitment site) and get discounts on training and consultancy. I’d recommend Charity Trustees: Induction and Refresher Training – next one in October in London.

Do you know of other useful resources are out there for new charities and trustees? If so, please share!

Learning from National Trust


What’s the problem?

I couldn’t believe the traction that the National Trust ‘story’ gained over the weekend, with the Daily Mail headline on Saturday being Mutiny at the National Trust. There’s slightly more to it than some volunteers in Norfolk refusing to wear a pride-themed badge, in that allegedly some of them refused in protest as they felt the organisation had ‘outed’ Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, who bequeathed the Norfolk property to the Trust. Through a video titled ‘The Unfinished Portrait’ the Trust looks at Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer’s life and achievements, and it notes that he was openly gay among those who were close to him. The video also suggests that he was engaged in equality legislation, showing a Government document (the Wolfenden Report) containing recommendations to decriminalise homosexuality – this was in 1957, 10 years before the Sexual Offences Act came into place.

Given that he lived during a time when being gay was a criminal offence (he died two years after the Act was introduced), it is no surprise that he was – as his relatives and godchildren state – “intensely private”. If he was alive today, I wonder what Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer would make of the cultural changes and increased acceptance of LGBTQ issues over recent decades.


How the National Trust managed the issue

Initially the National Trust defended the video and their asking volunteers in public-facing roles to wear the badge as part of their Prejudice and Pride campaign. As the video states, “To do anything less would be to suggest that same sex love and gender diversity is wrong – we must challenge the prejudices of the past” (and if you look at some of the tabloid and Twitter outrage, some of the prejudices of today too).

However, yesterday afternoon the National Trust did a U Turn, stating that it is a personal choice for volunteers to wear the badge. This has been done in response to backlash such as “it’s a denial of volunteer rights” which is why it feels wrong to me: charities shouldn’t pander to the views of people who are not willing to support the values of equality and diversity – it’s 2017, 50 years after the legislation was put in place.

And let us remember that volunteers sign up to the founding principles of the Trust of “promoting equality of opportunity and inclusion”. Asking volunteers to wear this badge in public-facing roles is reasonable; it is not a political statement, it is part of a campaign which celebrates equality and diversity. The irony of the volunteer who stated “Now its motto is, ‘For ever, for everyone’ but clearly that’s not the case for volunteers with different views” has not been lost on me.

It’s true that some volunteers are no longer willing to work with the Trust and some have gone to the right wing press, because they do not wish to embrace this campaign. I think this further highlights the continued need for work around equality and diversity.


What could the National Trust have done differently?

  • External stakeholder engagement. It looks like they did this very well actually, working with Stonewall and the University of Leicester on campaign engagement. But did they underestimate the viewpoint of Mr Wyndham Ketton-Cremer’s relatives and godchildren? It sounds like they found out about it via the media and the video rather than being consulted beforehand.
  • Internal engagement with the campaign. Again, I imagine that this was done very well, but was volunteer input sought prior to campaign development and execution? I’m sure that the Trust know their volunteers’ views very well but perhaps these could have been managed as part of the internal launch.
  • Stick to core messaging. Although their campaign remains, their change with regards to volunteers wearing the badges now being optional says a lot about how (quite frankly) outdated views have ‘won’ over equality and diversity and it is for this reason that I’m disappointed that the organisation has publicly been seen to have made a U Turn; I feel that it should have ridden the non-story of the Daily Mail et al.

As all charities do, I’m sure that the National Trust values the enormous contribution that volunteers make to their organisation, but values need to be adhered to and this isn’t something that charities should compromise on – in many ways it’s what sets charities apart from other organisations.

I’ll be interested to see how things play out for the National Trust volunteer programme over the coming months – I imagine the overall impact will be minimal. But more interestingly, I’m keen to see how the LGBTQ community responds to this – if it sticks – and if it impacts of the Trust’s ability to tap into this audience.

Want to do something positive in response to all this? Why not sign up with the National Trust as a volunteer near where you live?

Going it alone



I’ve gone freelance by accident. After having my delightful, gorgeous, exceptionally noisy baby boy, I had fully intended to go back to my role at Toynbee Hall. Then we moved out of London. So, I’ve decided to go it alone.

Having worked as a consultant at NCVO and provided voluntary consultancy support through Small Charities Coalition (which I think is brilliant, btw) I know what I’m signing up for in terms of work, though the reality of the lack of monthly salary is rather alarming.

However, I’m very excited to be starting out on this new adventure. I’m an Associate Consultant with NCVO and aside from that, the work I’ve got lined up so far is varied and challenging, so just up my street.

My work is focused on delivering the best outcomes to people in need. That’s it. I do this by supporting organisations to operate as innovatively and effectively as they can.

I’m good at planning and making things happen. Whether that’s developing a new income stream, a fundraising strategy or writing a costed business plan for a new service.

I’m open to interim management positions and can deliver training.

Get in touch if there’s something that I can help you with.


Gin treat? It’s time to get prepared for Easter, so get involved with this beauty: Gin & Tonic Easter Egg. Well done Prestat, well done.



Reflections on leadership


I’ve found it difficult to write a blog over the past 11months. In part, after finishing my MSc I’ve stopped habitually working weekends (a good thing on many levels) leaving little time to write. Having also moved jobs from working as a consultant with many charities to working only for Toynbee Hall, the content would be restricted to Toynbee Hall or English for Action where I’m a trustee. And that poses a few challenges; your perspective narrows when you’re only considering one charity, and there could be some commercial sensitivity.

Having been in the role for nearly a year now, I thought I’d write about my own journey stepping up into a Head of Development role. This is a useful reflection for me, and it might be interesting to others making a similar move.

There are three things that have been fundamental to me in getting on well over the last year – the third is work in progress:

1. Manager who trusts you

Taking a step up in your career can require someone to take a punt on you – you seem good, but you might not have the same number of years experience as other candidates. I’ve generally been quite lucky in this respect. My current manager took that risk and has given me the space to develop a fundraising strategy from scratch, shape and recruit a new team and try out new projects that aren’t technically on the priority list but fit beautifully strategically. And he gets the cakes in when needed (thanks Chris Triggs).

Before accepting a role, be confident that that you’ll get adequate space and support to deliver what you need to; you’ll face enough challenges without having to convince your line manager of your abilities.

2. Coaching

Something else that has been particularly important is the coaching that I’ve received over the past 12 months. Thinking back to my first coaching session in May 2014 when I accepted the role (a bit anxious and acutely aware of the need to make a good impression and deliver), to my last one in May 2015 (how can I have greater influence across the organisation?), made me realise how much I have changed and grown within the role.

Having a safe space to discuss, reflect and plan how to tackle specific issues has been incredibly valuable and I’m grateful to Kath Abrahams for her unrelenting patience and generosity in enabling this.

3. Yourself

Aside from people giving you an opportunity and helping you to think about how you navigate the change in role, more importantly is how you tackle it. For me, it’s an ongoing challenge – no longer about the change in role, but developing as a manager and leader.

The Clore Social Leadership Framework has three values at its core: Know yourself. Be yourself. Look after yourself. These are three useful things to consider on a regular basis.

Know yourself

Self awareness is important generally and in this context it’s because it’s the first step in changing your own behaviour, so that ultimately you’re more effective. I’m learning to manage different situations in different ways; this sounds obvious, but it is less about changing your communication style and more about thinking how a specific conversation could play out in the longer term and contribute to getting the result that you want. Essentially, it’s about engaging in the politics of the organisation in a constructive way – which can sometimes be a frustrating necessity.

As a transparent person, the tendency to speak directly about a situation – even when done objectively – can sometimes be misinterpreted. Reacting rather than responding can sometimes be detrimental to what I’m trying to achieve, even if it’s coming from the right place (i.e. wanting to get the job done so we’re more effective, deliver more, etc.). In a highly politicised internal environment it could also be used against you, so it’s worth thinking about how you’re perceived and try to manage yourself accordingly.

Understanding your own energy peaks and troughs during the day is also really useful. I’m best doing reading and detailed work first thing in the morning and better at broader planning and conversational things in the afternoon; plan your days around this where possible.

Be yourself

Something I’ve struggled with is the notion of professionalism (!). There’s certainly a balance between the ‘friend zone’ and managing a team, but does being professional mean that you can’t enjoy the company of your colleagues and laugh in the office? I don’t think so.

Following on from ‘know yourself’ I’m still learning how to manage transparency with the team. The idea of selective disclosure is interesting. This doesn’t mean withholding information, but rather being transparent in the most useful way, such as not disclosing too much of the detail where it’s not necessary, not disclosing information on complex projects where decisions are subject to change. Essentially, not creating unnecessary complications or uncertainty.

I’m In terms of managing a team, I’m trying to be the kind of manager that I respect. Setting a clear strategy, but enabling flexibility in how it is operationally delivered so that people can lead in their given area; celebrating individual and team success (such as making the IoF Awards shortlist) ; encouraging training and networking within the sector (improving the individual and also the reputation of Toynbee Hall fundraising); encouraging volunteering to broaden the experience of the team too (e.g. Small Charities Coalition). This is working well and individuals in the team are growing as professional fundraisers – hopefully they’ll stick around.

Look after yourself

A few of my friends and colleagues can cope with six hours sleep and happily work 12 hour days, week in week out. I am not this person. I can be physically present, but I can’t be productive on these hours over the course of more than a week. If I’ve some early starts and late finishes, I’ll try to manage my workload a bit better; perhaps push back pieces of work that need more thought and fill the space with the more straight forward things that need doing too – catching up with colleagues, filing, ploughing through emails.

There are lots of articles that you can read about looking after yourself. The basics are to get some sleep, eat and drink properly, make time for friends and family, and do some exercise.

Overall, I feel that I’m in the right place – on a learning curve that isn’t so steep I’m breaking, but is keeping me interested. And it’s nice seeing our fundraising improve too! My challenge going forward will be to keep reflecting on where I’m at and not get caught up only in the day to day.

Gin time?

Having been on a recent trip to Cuba, I’m all about rum at the moment, specifically Pina Colada. However, I’ve only had Pina Colada out of a can in the UK (revolting) and am yet to try to make it from scratch at home, so I can’t provide a decent recipe.

Instead, I’d recommend a bubble bath (Look after yourself?) with Gin and Tonic bathing gel, something a friend got me on to. Amazing.

The first week: Toynbee Hall and Mozart


This week I started as Head of Development at Toynbee Hall. My job is to grow unrestricted income for the organisation, which is likely to come from a mix of corporate, individual and major donor giving, but after just five days, rather unsurprisingly, what that looks like and how we focus our effort, I haven’t yet figured out. Ideas on a postcard, please.

What struck me before I joined Toynbee Hall was that whoever I mentioned it to, they always had something positive to say about it. On top of that, there’s the amazing history: the first university settlement, an impressive alumni including Attlee and Beveridge, and a key player in social reform. Consequently, I’ve been excited to find out more and get going.

Here are the highlights of my first week.

1.    Who is who and what we do

As you’d expect, I met many of the service managers and got a sense of what we do and the impact we have. The complex range of services fit into one of three areas:

  1. Law and money (such as the Free Legal Advice Service)
  2. Learning (such Deesha, English as a second language)
  3. Wellbeing (such as Dignify, a project supporting older people)

I also got to see our City Advice service in action, operating out of a local community centre. A free service to people living in the City who are struggling with legal, welfare benefits or debt problems, I was struck by the impartiality of the advisor and that these people simply have no other place to access the information they need.

Meeting the fundraising and communications team was great – a lovely and smart bunch of people. Hurrah! I started to get a sense of who funds us, why, how much, what for, etc. and began to look at our fundraising communications such as our appeals, thank you letters and the website.

So pretty standard stuff, really. Then all this happened…

2.    Aspire graduation

The graduation ceremony for Aspire provided the perfect opportunity to really get to know Toynbee Hall’s flagship youth service and meet the young people involved.

Aspire works with young people who are lacking in confidence and struggling for various reasons (e.g. bereavement, bullying, family difficulties). It’s an incredible programme that gets young people to connect with each other, express  themselves, and explore new things and ideas. The programme includes circus training and a trip to Jamie’s Farm. It was incredible seeing the changes that these young people have gone through, growing in confidence and being able to express themselves better. An example of this is three of young people speaking at a fundraising event earlier in the week – in front of 500 people; a daunting task for most of us.

3.    Visiting the archive

One of the highlights of my week was chatting to Liz, who works in the archive. Part of the archive is held at the London Metropolitan Archive, but the biggest collection is at Toynbee Hall itself. Liz has spent the last year collecting information from across the organisation and organising it.

It is a gold mine of history about the people of the East End, Toynbee Hall and its influence in social reform. Handwritten diaries, annual reports since 1884, pictures of everything and everyone – tennis matches, smoking debates, and various members of the royal family at Toynbee Hall.

The first thing I laid eyes on was a poster from 1907, advertising one of the Smoking Debates that took place every Thursday – this particular one was about women and the vote. Incredible to think that these debates were taking place in that actual hall.

Liz has also started to map out and research the families that were/are connected the founders, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett. In its first iteration, it’s a beautiful sheet of card with pins and string connecting all the relationships together. At some point, I hope for these names to be gracing Raiser’s Edge.

4.    Having someone sing Mozart to me 

One of our service users wanted to discuss making a contribution to Toynbee Hall so I had a chat with him. In his late seventies, he was actually more interested to discuss his passion for music and his career as a composer than making a donation. Then he then sang a bit of Mozart – an unexpected delight!

5.    Checking out the local area

I’ve been encouraged to get out and about in the local area to see more of borough and the communities that we work with. As I have no sense of direction I decided to wait until the weekend for Mr Crackles, tour guide extraordinaire. Although I’ve lived in Homerton for the last four years, I hadn’t really appreciated (a) how close Poplar, Shadwell and Canary Wharf were to me, (b) how segregated the areas are – mostly split up by huge roads, and (c) how separate worlds live side-by-side. This latter point is epitomised by the homeless people camping outside Toynbee Hall in the council-owned garden, directly opposite the building of luxury apartments.

On our cycle this morning, I took a few pictures. This one a dog amused me – note that it says ‘gentrification’ at the bottom. My interpretation is that this is trying to convey that the population of the area is changing; people with silly dogs are moving in. (I try not to be judgemental – each to their own, etc. – but if you think that dogs should go in a handbag, it’s going to happen.)

Silly dog

So it was a busy kind of week: all of the above, plus finding out that we get a 5% discount at the on-site Arts Café and discovering the foods vans down Petticoat Lane; a guilty pleasure for lunchtimes. Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing more of the same plus my favourite thing – planning to plan.


Gin O’clock?

This is a real cop-out and it has been pointed out to me that this is not a cocktail, but it’s proper.

Bit of elderflower cordial, shot or two of gin, top up with prosecco.

Consequences include excellent parties and immense headaches.

Fancy something more refined? Check out The Rivington Grill – it has a gin menu. Although the service was shoddy, they earn extra points for using this quote:

“Beloved, we join hands here to pray for gin. An aridity defiles us. Our innards thirst for the juice of juniper. Something must be done.”

Wallace Thurman, Infants of Spring.


Charity Masters Degrees: a balancing act


My media career started at a very young age – at just four years old I was pictured in The Selby Times, dressed as a bell for my school nativity play. But I’m no Macauley Culkin and since then I have withdrawn from the heady heights of celebrity and got on with my life.

However, this week there’s a little snippet from me (not dressed as a bell) in the Guardian’s post-graduate supplement. So I’ve taken this opportunity to note why I believe there is a need for specialist charity masters degrees and the opportunities and challenges of undertaking one.

The main point is this: while the general public believe that our work is special, they don’t necessarily believe that it is specialised. It is.

There are 180,000 registered charities in the UK tackling social, economic and environmental issues. This vast sector requires staff and volunteers that are representative of its diversity (I’m referring to skills, education, expertise, background as well as ethnicity and gender) but it also requires specialist knowledge. This is where a charity masters degree can be beneficial.


  • Sector specific knowledge: some things are different in charities due to the fundamental difference between for-profit organisations and charities, who do not distribute profit to ‘interested parties’. If you’re a senior manager at a charity you should know something about charity accounting (the SORP) charity law and regulatory bodies such as the Charity Commission – and practitioner-specific ones like Fundraising Standards Board.
  • Broad knowledge: the basis of each course covers areas including voluntary sector policy, marketing and research, and resource management (financial and otherwise). Whatever your seniority, there’ll be something you’re not so strong on and charity masters provide an opportunity to develop in that area.
  • Practical and applicable: coursework is based on your organisation – this is really useful if you want to explore something in or for your organisation but can’t fit it into your day job.
  • Clever folk: guest lecturers and speakers tend to be well-known and well-respected individuals in the sector, such as Ian Bruce, Karl Wilding, Jenny Harrow and Debra Allcock Tyler. Consequently you get excellent case studies and examples throughout.
  • Networks: past students advised us to make the most of the contacts we make through the course. I hadn’t anticipated how valuable this would be; I now know people across a range of organisations who I can call if I need a steer on something new to me.

And the flip-side:

  • Balancing personal development according to sector changes: I don’t believe that solely a charity background is the only way to strengthen the sector (as per my NCVO blog regarding people coming in to the sector from the forces) and I’ve certainly noticed an increase in people talking of talent coming from the corporate sector: there are lessons to learn from both sides. Fundraising and marketing are inextricably linked and some organisations are reflecting this in their structures: Friends of the Earth, WWF and Breakthrough Breast Cancer staffing structures place marketing and fundraising activities within the same directorate. This enables greater synergy between the two functions but has implications for marketers with a corporate marketing background working with fundraisers and vice-versa. For those of us already in the sector, we should balance charity-specific training with broader, perhaps more commercial training. For those entering the sector, courses such as Cass’ Charity Masters could provide the edge to push you further up the ladder. Ultimately, a balance of development activities and training will enable us all to work more effectively together.
  • A bit of a life thief: there are times when you’re busy at work, or you’re on holiday, or you’re just shattered…but you need to research and write an assignment. If you genuinely want to develop, you need to put in the effort and this can be testing at times.
  • You become a charity geek – and quickly too: shifting from a mind-numbing episode of Hollyoaks of an eve, to clips from BBC Parliamentary Live because it’s interesting was an unexpected change for me. You notice things in the press you wouldn’t have previously noticed, you want to comment on said articles, dammit you want to write them!

For me, the course is helping me gain knowledge and skills that I wouldn’t necessarily have gained ‘on the job’. Moreover, it has encouraged me to be better, aim higher, expect more: we can’t solve complex social problems if we don’t keep pushing.

Time for tea and cake

Gin and tonic cake

I didn’t think that such a thing existed, but to my pleasure, it does.

Courtesy of my course buddy @KatieKirks who directed me to this:

My top tip is to use a massive tin as it’s a lot of cake and it rises a lot too. I used tonic and lime in the icing and I think that was a very good choice.

Feedback included: “It’s a very accomplished cake.”

Anticipating and managing risk: tips from a three-year-old


On a recent family holiday I introduced my three-year-old niece to The Lion King. She had an outline of the story from a book, but I had the DVD. This was a big deal. The three generations of us (mum, sister, niece) sat down to watch it. My niece watched the film intently and afterwards had a lot of questions, namely to do with the death of Mufasa (who was thrown off a cliff by his brother, Scar). The conversation went a bit like this:

 “Why did Mufasa die?” – “Because he fell off the cliff”

“Why?” – “Because Scar pushed him”

“Why?” – “Because Scar’s not very nice – he was jealous”

“Why?” – At this point, I started to wonder how much you should tell a small child about the complexities of family dynamics. So the answer was pretty much “he just is”.

My niece chose to believe that Scar was an unhappy lion and that his mummy would come and find him and make him better and happy again (not that he got killed by hyenas!) and everyone would live happily ever after. Fair enough – she’s three.

But adults running charities need to be able to answer the ‘Why?’ and ‘What if…?’ questions. We know that there is increasing pressure (and rightly so) for transparency and accountability, but in addition to these external drivers, if you can answer these questions, your organisation is better placed to:

  • learn from the past (‘Why did X happen? What could we do differently next time?)
  • anticipate challenges (‘What if X?); and crucially
  • develop responses to anticipated challenges (‘If X happens, we will Y’)

My experience is that we’re pretty good at learning from the past to inform decisions – particularly in fundraising, where past behaviour informs future asks – but we could perhaps be better prepared for anticipating future challenges, and crucially, how our organisations will respond to them.

My overall thought is one of being able to respond, not react.

Here are some further thoughts on anticipating and managing risk at strategic and operational levels.

Strategy development and scenario planning

Creating and delivering a strategic plan is difficult for various reasons, not least because of the difficulties of setting the path – the key activities, not just a goal or vision – that will be relevant and appropriate in the environment in three or five years’ time.

Many of the strategy documents that I’ve read include analysis of the external environment (usually PEST or PESTLE analysis) to anticipate what context the organisation will be operating in, in the future. Plans are put in place based on this anticipated environment and corresponding risk registers are developed. Good stuff.

Scenario planning takes this a step further by identifying other possible futures. For example, with reduced funding for the arts, arts organisations may want to consider two futures: one with the continuation of funding and another where a core funder withdraws support. Campaigning organisations will hopefully be considering how they will operate after the General Election, developing hypothetical organisational strategies/ responses based on the possible leadership.

Knowhownonprofit has a good guide to scenario planning including an outline agenda for running a workshop on it. It’s written by Caroline Copeman and is rather excellent, hence I won’t go into the detail here – but here’s a brief introduction:

Firstly, create your ‘axes of uncertainty’. These axes should show the best and worst situation in a given scenario. Let’s consider a (hypothetical) hospice in a specific region:

  1. a large volunteer base enables it to be wide-reaching and provide a high standard of service;
  2. a significant proportion of its income is from one funder.

These are possible axes that the hospice might want to consider:


By doing an exercise like this, you will be able to respond better to changes rather than having to react to them. Imagine a pendulum swinging: it will always travel the same path unless it is hit by an external force – if hit, its path will be disrupted it and it is then impossible to know where it will travel. In simple terms, scenario planning helps you to prepare your organisation’s response to being hit sideways.

Operational management – plus, minus, interesting

At an operational level, developing and managing a risk register is really important. By understanding your risks, you can plan to avoid, mitigate or accept them.

Operational risks might be that a celebrity doesn’t turn up to your event, there’s a complaint about a street fundraiser, or the Daily Mail might just have a pop at you. A good risk register (not included here as I’m sure you’ll already have them) developed with other people – not just a project manager – will help to identify such risks but the task sometimes feels a bit of a chore and allocating weightings to probability and impact can feel a bit arbitrary. To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it – you should – but here’s something that you could use to supplement it.

Plus, Minus, Interesting is traditionally a creative tool to help you work out if an idea has legs or not. It draws out the pros and cons, but also the unintended consequences – and when you understand the implications of these unintended consequences, you can manage them or choose to avoid them by doing something differently.

Here’s a brief overview of the tool:

  1. Define your idea or activity: e.g.
  2. Create three columns on a flipchart:
    • plus (pros)
    • minus (cons)
    • interesting (other things that happen as a result of the idea or activity – by-products)
  3. Give each thing that you write in the columns a weighting: + in the plus column, – in the minus column, and +/- in the interesting column
  4. Add up the scores and you’ll get a sense of how the pros and cons balance out, which may inform whether you choose to progress the idea or activity
  5. Now look at the things in the interesting column; pull them out individually and start to consider what the implications are and what your response could be to them

It’s in step 5 where this tool becomes really useful, because you start to consider other possible scenarios – as with scenario planning – and it puts you in a position of being able to anticipate, and to a certain degree, manage these scenarios. Try this exercise the next time you’re creating a risk register; use it to supplement your usual risk register planning and see how it works for you.

To sum things up, the repetitive questions from my niece were a good reminder that we need to remain inquisitive and aware that things might change any day. For some people, change isn’t welcome (you know the ones – “we tried that in 1994 and it didn’t work”) but leaders need to be anticipating and shaping change, not playing catch-up.

So next time you’re doing some strategic planning, think about asking some questions – repeatedly, if necessary – like my niece did about the Lion King and you might uncover some new thinking. Alternatively, you could take her approach to Little Red Riding Hood, which is “I don’t read that any more – it’s really sary (scary)”. But that is not what I’d recommend.


Fancy something delicious and not nutritious?

Gin and tonic sorbet

My colleague Dave sent me this one and I intend to try it over the Christmas break. Sounds like an excellent alternative to more Christmas pudding. Dave suggested that you “should be careful driving afterwards” and by that I think he means don’t. So don’t.

6 oz castor sugar
pared zest and juice of 2 limes
¾ pint of water
6 tbs gin
3/4 pint tonic water (not slimline)
fresh lime and mint to decorate.

Dissolve the sugar in 3/4 pint of water over a moderate heat. Stir in the lime zest and juice and boil for 5 mins to reduce. Set aside to cool, then strain into a freezerproof container and stir in the gin and tonic. Freeze straight away until it is slushy [add another slug of gin here if you fancy it], then beat and return to the freezer. The alcohol prevents it from freezing hard, so just before serving, spoon it out and decorate it with a slice of lime and a mint leaf. Refreshing.