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How small charities can gain business skills

Cheshire Connect by Donna Okell

Engaging in a mutually beneficial collaboration with a local business is one way your charity can become more sustainable. Cheshire Connect is an example of how these partnerships can work in practice

by Donna Okell

 

Economic conditions for the third sector are increasingly challenging. Traditional funding models have changed, and the need to operate in a lean, business-like manner is increasingly important. That’s why more small charities should be looking to partner with the local business world.

Good relationships between businesses and charities should be mutually beneficial. It’s not just about looking for ‘help’; it’s about collaboration, and equitable skills exchange. At Cheshire Connect, we pair businesses with charities that match their personal and corporate goals, and that will benefit from the particular skills and expertise that business can offer.

 

Stronger through gaining business skills

 

One of the local charities we’ve work with is Cheshire Without Abuse. When its CEO, Saskia Ritchie, was appointed around four years ago, the organisation was on the verge of collapse. Although they’d had some great achievements in the local community, they lacked the harder business skills, such as assessment and strategy, that would fortify them against difficult economic conditions.

We introduced Saskia to Angela Hodgson, senior strategist at Bentley Motors. Angela mentored Saskia, sharing her skills and showing her how to operate in a more business-like fashion. This helped empower Saskia to develop a really robust business plan.

Angela worked with Saskia to clear identify the organisation’s objectives, projected outputs and outcomes. All stakeholders were encouraged to get involved. Most impressively, the business plan which evolved was not an extensive McKinsey-style document, but rather four clear pillars, which were CWA’s objectives against which progress could be clearly reviewed and managed.

Three years on, and Cheshire Without Abuse is now an award-winning charity with six refuges and a very healthy bank balance, and is considered one of the most efficient and effective charities in the North West. It’s small but lean, engaged, and very clear about where it’s going.

 

Mentor, coach and “critical friend”

 

There were so many benefits for the charity, from acquiring business skills, to helping raise its profile, to providing opportunities to apply for funding and awards.

Saskia said: “Angela’s been amazing. She’s been a mentor and a coach; she’s been a real critical friend to the organisation. She’s picked our organisation apart, but then she’s helped us put it back together again in a much more solid and structured way.

“We’ve had to be open to that, and at times it’s been challenging, but she’s done it professionally and so enthusiastically and positively that it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with her.”

It was also the first time that Angela had worked this way, so it was a new experience for her too. When I presented her with an award for her contribution to the local community, she said working with Cheshire Without Abuse was one of the best things she’d done in her professional career. She’d learned a huge amount about the third sector and the challenges it faces: its need to be resourceful; the constraints around funding; and the difficulties of planning.

For Bentley, it was more than simply an opportunity to gain positive PR for its CSR programme. They now had a senior strategist with stronger leadership skills, a better knowledge of the local community, and more contacts. The partnership itself could be used a tool for employee acquisition (empirical evidence suggests particularly younger employees value the social responsibility commitments of an organisation as much as they do the salary) and help Bentley provide a motivational and fulfilling environment for employees.

It’s now one year since the project finished, and Angela is still engaged with the charity, acting as an ad hoc mentor and endorsing its work in the local community wherever the opportunity arises.

 

How the matching process works

 

At Cheshire Connect, we facilitate collaborations between local charities and businesses through our team of six business connectors, who each manage a specific geographical area in Cheshire. They have a detailed knowledge and understanding of the social challenges facing these local communities, and of the local charities, businesses, and other partners such as local authorities in their area.

The business connectors will sit down with a charity and spend time really trying to understand what that charity needs – for example, the skills needed to put together a really robust business plan – using NCVO’s Organisation Dial. They will write a project scoping document, which is then shared with a potential business volunteer.

When a suitable ‘match’ is agreed (and it’s important that the skills exchange experience considers matching personalities as well as skills), the business connector will meet with the charity and the business together, to agree expectations and terms of engagement.

Once the match is agreed and the collaboration gets underway, the business connector will take a ‘watching brief’, making contact on an ad hoc basis to ensure the project is progressing well. They provide both parties with the tools for obtaining tangible, evaluated results based on the skills that business has provided.

Approximately three months after the match, the business connector will complete a detailed evaluation and case study. This is an opportunity to review and manage the progress of the skills exchange. If any of the parties are not satisfied with the outcomes of the project, the business connector will take time to understand why and address any issues which may have arisen (although this rarely happens, as the business connector has close relationships with the business and charity involved).

The evaluation can also present further skills exchange opportunities. We analyse all of our evaluations to assess the value we add and make any changes to our services on an ongoing basis.

 

Empowering charities to master vital skills

 

Some of the processes involved in operating a business aren’t always familiar to third sector organisations, but are standard procedure in the commercial world. Examples are:

 

• business strategy and planning

• measuring impact

• lean processes: data management, IT, recording, reviewing, managing information

• marketing and communications

• HR

• effective board relationships

• financial strategies and management

• legal issues

 

Empowering charities to master these skills through meaningful partnerships with businesses is the key to increasing capacity where relevant, and to improving efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability.

There is a mounting body of evidence which suggests that effective collaboration between charities and businesses is having an extremely positive effect on our communities. As Helen Keller summed up so eloquently: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

We are keen to encourage both not-for-profit organisations and commercial businesses to consider ways in which we all benefit from effective partnerships. We would be delighted to hear from any organisation who would like to get involved.

 

Donna Okell is chief executive of Cheshire Connect @cheshireconnec.

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