When a charity creating gardens in hospices hit a funding drought, some brave decisions had to be made to cut off the dead wood and encourage new growth. Deborah Skillicorn explains how Greenfingers rose to the challenge
Greenfingers, a small national charity set up in 1998, is dedicated to supporting children and families who spend time in children’s hospices around the UK by creating magical, therapeutic gardens at the hospices. Its gardens provide outdoor spaces for fun and play, treatments and therapy, respite and remembering.
During its first ten years, the charity was managed by the founder chairman, together with a small team of highly dedicated and committed voluntary trustees. In this time, enough money was raised to design and build 26 gardens for hospices, with the vast majority of financial support coming from the gardening and horticulture industry.
However, as demand for the Greenfingers gardens started to rise, the regular income streams began to fall. It was time for a charity health check.
Committing to change
In 2011, we undertook a major strategic review, consulting with a range of stakeholders. These included hospices we had already created gardens for, the organisation Together for Short Lives, current trustees, and current and former supporters from the horticulture industry, along with the industry governing bodies and other gardening-related charities.
The aim of the consultation was to ascertain a new, sustainable framework for our future direction in order to maintain the delivery of our gardens in line with the growing needs of the children’s hospices that were asking for our help. We knew that to push forward would certainly mean undergoing some intensive further analysis and committing to major change. The trustees took a bold decision, and unanimously committed to Greenfingers’ future. We knew some of the changes would inevitably be difficult, but they were necessary to strengthen the charity’s framework.
To achieve and maintain our long-term vision, we felt we needed some fresh blood on board. As we reached the end of our full governance review in 2012, we welcomed a new chairman, Matthew Wilson. He helped us to create, among other things, a mechanism to enable longstanding trustees to step down, should they wish, as well as enabling us to find new trustees to bring fresh ideas and vigour to the board. A small group of carefully selected new trustees joined us in early 2013, working with, and bringing succession to, four of our original trustees, who will be stepping down in January 2014.
Our new vision also required the creation of new roles and responsibilities. We had to get the charity fighting at its ideal weight, and having the relevant skill set was critical in being able to deliver what was going to be a demanding strategic climb. At the end of 2012 we undertook a full staff review, which led to us making some key additions to the team, including a new garden projects manager and a PR professional, who both joined on a part-time basis.
Initially, this was a steep learning curve. One error of the staff review was giving a short-term role to a current member of the team that didn’t actually match her skills set – the reality was her skills were best suited to her previous role. What we learned was to listen first to the needs of the charity and allow the staff to dovetail behind this.
Despite the new additions, we remain a very small team: all our team members work part time, with combined hours adding up to the equivalent of just three full-time members of staff. Keeping our cost/income ratios at a respectable level primarily drives this approach. The challenge is to ensure efficient communication and information-sharing within the team. We have achieved this by making the two people regularly based in the office the central conduits for information and activities and the axis around which the rest of the team pivots.
Every person in the team is expected to deliver a high level of output, in line with the activity of the charity. However, as we work in a cohesive way, we all celebrate the successes as a team and can see that every person plays an integral role in the outcome of each opportunity. Furthermore, our people now clearly recognise their own area of responsibility and accountability.
At the same time, we made sure we aligned ourselves with the needs of UK children’s hospices – after all, this need is the backbone of the work we do. We had to ensure total clarity in our charitable objectives, identifying how many children’s hospices needed our help and at what level. Without this, we run the risk of simply not achieving relevant aims. Among the needs we identified was working with two new-build children’s hospices, where we will be designing their gardens off-plan – an exciting first for the charity.
Another significant change came in the way we fund the work we do. Previously, the charity had raised money generically and, to a large extent, had identified hospices to work with and create gardens for only when enough general money had been raised to build one. Now, we’re taking a more strategic approach; identifying the needs from hospices to have gardens created for them and committing to focused fundraising, often regionally, in those areas where the upcoming gardens were sited.
With many of our previous supporters suffering from donor fatigue, we could now present them with a clear opportunity to support a wonderful garden in a children’s hospice close by to their business – rather than being asked to fund a general ‘good cause’. Both regionally and nationally, our future gardens are now driving the charity’s priorities for fundraising.
Communicating with the all the charity’s stakeholders at different levels remains an area for constant consideration, and the establishment of a fundraising and communications committee has helped get our message out to stakeholders clearly. This peer-to-peer involvement has increased our capacity to reach out to new prospects directly, members of the committee often have existing relationships within the corporate world who we can approach with a personalised ask which has accelerated the influence we’ve been able to have.
We also needed to make sure we were speaking and listening to our supporters more strategically. We have worked hard to develop relationships and communicate in the most effective way the with hospices, donors, companies and individuals who have traditionally supported us. We have done this by talking to our supporters about the gardens that are of most interest to them, where appropriate, while at a national level we have created campaigns which focus on aspects of a number of gardens and which most closely relate to our supporters’ own businesses.
We have also harnessed the power of the media, developing relationships with journalists and looking for opportunities to secure press coverage in the everyday work we are doing. We are working with a dedicated social media marketer and know that people are now better informed about our activities, which will hopefully lead to greater support. There’s no doubt we now have a better understanding of the positive role that press and social media can play.
With a clearer goal for the charity now identified, communicating our aims has naturally become easier. This has led to us identifying other industries and individuals to work with, and has allowed us to develop new marketing partnerships. We recognised that we could no longer solely rely on the slightly fatigued, yet still supportive, gardening and horticulture industries, but needed to look further afield and talk clearly to new potential supporters. Conversely, our new voice has actually brought back some fallen donors from our traditional supporter base, and reaffirmed us as the ‘charity of the gardening industry’.
As a result of all the changes we’ve made, in spring 2013 Greenfingers was able to launch its most ambitious appeal to date. Rosy Cheeks Appeal aims to raise £750k over two years to create at least ten further gardens in children’s hospices around the UK. In the first six months, we identified all the hospices we aim to work with, and have made significant in-roads towards our fundraising target. We were thrilled to land a major gift of £150k from a high-net-worth individual who was new to the charity – a gift that will make a major difference to our appeal. These developments simply wouldn’t have happened in the days before we carried out our vital health check.
We are still a very small charity – but we are a robust, fit and determined one. We know the pressures will never let up, but we firmly believe the future of the Greenfingers gardens is rosy.
Deborah Skillicorn is director of Greenfingers
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 36, December 2013