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Operating during the cost of living crisis

The Gingerbread Centre helps families without a home in Stoke-on-Trent and the surrounding area get back on track and back into their own home. Family is at the heart of what we do.

We provide temporary supported accommodation for the whole family in one of our 33 flats or houses for as long as necessary, while our Family Support Team establishes why the family lost their home, puts together a package of help to address the specific issues the family faces and, ultimately, get the family back into a home of their own - regardless of how long it takes.

Both facilities are staffed 24 hours a day. One caters for teenage parents and the other for parents of all ages.

Tackling preconceptions

Anyone can find themselves in a situation where they lose their home and it can happen quite suddenly. People tend to have a preconceived idea about homelessness and often just associate it with rough sleepers, but the problem is much bigger and more complex than this and is a particular issue in Stoke-on-Trent and the wider West Midlands area.

It is a traumatic experience for a family to lose their home, and in particular for children who have lost their bedroom, garden, possibly the family pet and may be separated from their friends.

From the referrals passed to The Gingerbread Centre, the two most common reasons for families losing their home at present are domestic violence and mental health issues, both of which may be the consequence of historic challenges that the family has faced.

We accommodate a diverse range of families at the centre. The common factor is that they have all lost their home, but beyond this their circumstances can be very different. Because of this, each family is given a bespoke package of support put together by our Family Support Team to address their specific needs, and each family is assigned a Key Worker. Families stay at the centre for as long as they need to, which in some cases can be for up to two years.

We aim to get families back into their own home as quickly as possible, but equally want a family to be able to manage a tenancy and the life-long term, so they don’t find themselves homeless again. Through our Floating Support Scheme we continue to support families for up to three months after they have moved out.

Children in particular can be traumatised by homelessness and can lose their confidence and self-esteem. We run an Activity Club to address these issues to help children make new friends and rebuild that lost confidence. It also enables families to reconnect in a relaxed and safe place.

We also support both teenage and older expectant mothers, and those with new-borns, who have been made homeless. Our support extends to helping with registering births, healthcare and arranging hospital appointments, as well as assisting the resident with becoming a new mum and all that entails.

Because of the challenges our families face, we have a Wellbeing Practitioner as part of our support team. Her role has focused on keeping families well, both emotionally and physically. She works with resident families at both our centres, promoting mental health awareness with service users who are experiencing mental ill health, aiding their wellbeing by bringing in external agencies when appropriate.

Private family accommodation

Although the centre provides supported accommodation in its flats and houses, these are private accommodation for each of the families housed. The flats are provided fully furnished with whatever is required to meet the family’s needs.

The families are responsible for looking after their living space whilst they are with us including cleaning and looking after the furniture, fixtures and fittings and reporting any issues so that our staff can arrange repairs. Each flat is fully inspected when a family successfully moves back into a home of their own and will be redecorated if necessary ready for the next family to move in.

We are very fortunate in that the staff involved in the front line delivery of our services are experienced, dedicated and compassionate, and work well together as a team. There is never a question about their motivation, but at times they have to make some difficult decisions in a challenging environment.

We have structured management within the charity which ensures that the right support is also given to our staff. All members of staff are required to undertake relevant training and to ensure that it is kept up to date.

Complex needs and increasing demand

The two biggest challenges that we face at the moment are firstly, the number of referrals we are receiving, which averages two per week, and where those referrals are coming from. As a Stoke based charity, our priority is to support families in the local area but because of the uniqueness and quality of the support we provide, we can receive referrals from as far afield as Manchester, Wolverhampton and the wider West Midlands, or even further.

This means that our Family Support Team has to prioritise referrals depending on the urgency of the need, which is extremely difficult from both a physical and emotional point of view, and it has to create a waiting list of families needing our accommodation. We endeavour to maintain contact with them to reassure them that accommodation will be available as soon as possible.

The second challenge is the complexity of the referrals we now receive. Many families can be in a bad place emotionally because they have fled domestic violence or are facing mental health challenges. There may be substance or alcohol abuse involved both of which need specialist support. This means that the support that they need can be far more complex than what we have provided in the past and in some cases the wellbeing of children has to be given special consideration.

Cost of living crisis impact

The main lesson we have learnt is that homelessness, particularly where families are concerned, is a complex and diverse situation and therefore, there is no “one fits all” rule into how the family’s needs are met. We have to be flexible. Also, where appropriate, we have learnt to utilise external support agencies to back up our Family Support Team with specialist advice.

The work of the centre is funded in a number of ways. We do get some statutory funding from our local authority but that has been reduced quite significantly over the last couple of years. We receive housing benefit for our families whilst they are with us and this covers the cost of their rent for the flat they are living in. The balance of our income then comes from fundraising.

The challenge for the charity is that our costs are increasing, in particular energy costs. Our families are also having to cope with the broader cost of living crisis and we are seeing more and more demands on our family emergency fund and on our emergency pantry, which many of our supporters kindly keep replenishing.

We are a relatively small charity - but are well structured. The Finance Team have overall responsibility for the financial management of the organisation. Although decisions can be taken to address issues as they arise, there is not normally any effect on the delivery of front line services.

However, we are seeing the need for increased fundraising. Our Activity Club, for example, is mainly funded through Children in Need. However, because of limitations on its funding, we have a shortfall in income if the club is to continue to operate fully, which equates to around £24,000 over three years. Because of the importance of the club as part of the support we provide to families, we have been exploring funding opportunities to plug the gap.

Aviva Community Fund

We are very grateful for the support that we have received from the Aviva Community Fund via pledges from employees and match funding of public donations. This income has particularly supported the work of our Family Support Team and the help that it gives to our families. The support has enabled us to develop programmes to assist our families with budgeting and financial management as well as lifestyle issues such as preparing cheap, nutritious meals on a budget.

The much appreciated support we have received from the Aviva Community Fund is a great way of raising funds for specific causes, and the fundraising has exceeded our expectations.

We have also learnt some tips along the way of how to make this fundraising as successful as possible.

It’s crucial to put together a project that is relevant and relatable to supporters, and communicate its goals through a good video that relates to the project and is not too generic. In the project description, introduce yourself with a picture so that would be supporters can relate to someone associated with the charity.

Regular and interesting project updates are important, and we always make the point of individually emailing everybody who makes a pledge at the time they do so.

Looking to the future, we have an ongoing programme of looking at and developing new income streams from trust and grants, corporate partnerships, events and community fundraising, thus hopefully enabling us to maintain and develop our support programmes.

The Gingerbread Centre’s Chris Belyavin – people tend to have a preconceived idea about homelessness and often just associate it with rough sleepers, but the problem is much bigger and more complex than this and is a particular issue in Stoke-on-Trent and the wider West Midlands area.
"We are very fortunate in that the staff involved in the front line delivery of our services are experienced, dedicated and compassionate, and work well together as a team."
"The much appreciated support we have received from the Aviva Community fund is a great way of raising funds for specific causes, and the fundraising has exceeded our expectations."

Making an impact with a simple message

Have you ever felt real fear in a public space? Just like us humans, sometimes our four-legged friends need a little space when out and about. Of course it’s wonderful to see healthy, happy dogs but for some dogs who are poorly, recovering from surgery or who have been subjected to bad living conditions, the world can present a frankly terrifying experience. That is why our charity Yellow Dog UK was created. We provide a simple method by which owners can mark their dogs as needing extra space.

Yellow Dog was originally developed by Eva Oliversson, a certified dog behaviourist and trainer in Sweden in June 2012.  She discovered a dog trainer in Australia had been using yellow ribbons to signify a dog needed space.  It was the answer Eva had been working toward – she knew if a dog felt safe and secure and had its own space it could help with training and socialising. 

Fantastic idea

Eva contacted a group of doggy related companies around the world to host the campaign in their respective countries.  At the time my partner Dave was running a dog boarding agency, and as soon as he found out about Yellow Dog he recognised what a fantastic idea it was and quickly signed up.

We had experience ourselves with a nervous dog who had been attacked in our local park.  Before he was such a loving dog but following the attack he was petrified of other dogs and he didn’t like men at all.  It was a long road back, physically and emotionally for him. We knew we had to rebuild his confidence and get him to learn how to re-socialise, but it needed to be on ours and his terms. He needed his own space to do that.

We launched Yellow Dog in November 2012 at Discover Dogs in London and we have grown in leaps and bounds over the last ten years. We are supported and sponsored by councils, vets, dog trainers and police forces, and we sell and donate various different yellow items for dogs to wear, including dog vests, leads, lead covers and tabards for humans!

Yellow ribbon

Yellow Dog UK works simply by placing a yellow ribbon on the lead or a yellow bandana or vest, or lead cover on the dog to signify that they need to be left alone. Our mission is to make this very simple method of identification both accepted and recognised across the whole of the UK benefitting everyone and making dog walking a more enjoyable experience.

Despite being a small charity we have been able to make a nationwide impact. We have exhibited at Crufts and Discover Dogs, as well as many other prominent dog shows including All About Dogs and Paws in the Park. We are based in Kent but we try to make ourselves as visible as possible across the UK by attending dog shows.

The combination of exhibitions and a social media presence helps to spread the word. More recently we are working with a social media guru who has helped to point us in the right direction and a PR company which has opened the door for us to online and hard copy magazines, as well as radio interviews (which are scary!)

Part of the impact we impact make can involve working with sponsors and partners. Yellow Dog UK offers sponsorship opportunities for a fee. Sponsors include local councils, vets, dog trainers and police forces including Humberside Police, Centre of Applied Pet Ethology, National Association of Pet Sitters and Dog Walkers (NARPS), British Dog Fields, Heal The Dog, Dog First Aid Merseyside as well as many others.

Product packaging

We are also partnering with pet healthcare company Mark & Chappell – we can be found on the product packaging and website for their SERENE-UM range which in turn opened the door for us to be a presence in various pet stores, including Pets at Home and Jollies.

Having a strong online presence can be a really useful way of reaching out from a small base. As well as exhibiting at various dog shows we also have a well visited website, 100,000-plus supporters on Facebook, a growing Instagram following and we sell our products on several different platforms: our website via our online store, eBay and Amazon.

Taking advantage of being able to learn all the time is a key aspect of developing a charity. As I mentioned before my partner David Lewis owned and ran a dog boarding agency. I had no experience at all within the pet or charity sectors - and it has been a full-on learning curve, for both of us really, running Yellow Dog UK. Previously I worked as a legal PA working for senior partners in a law firm – I therefore had plenty of experience working within strict deadlines and rules.

Sharing experiences

Every external show we exhibit at we learn something new – the first time we exhibited at Crufts it was a daunting affair but once you’ve been there a few times you start sharing your experiences with other new exhibitors, from setting up to breaking down, to where to stay!

I now do the books, as well as the day to day running of the charity which can include contacting dog rescuers to see if we can help in any way, to adding new items to Amazon shopping. Literally every day is a learning day!

One of the challenges in setting up the charity in the UK and managing to make an impact has been dealing with infringers. Quite quickly after setting up the charity various sole traders suddenly appeared on eBay and online stores copying our products and we have had to take one or two to IPEC (Intellectual Property Enterprise Court). All our logos etc are trade marked and this is essential – we don’t want people who need our products buying inferior items.

Legal advice

We are insured and when we set up the charity we sought legal advice on how the yellow message could impact our customers. We try to keep all our products as cheap as possible so that anyone who needs one of our items can afford them, and if they can’t afford them we will donate.

The essential ingredient in making an impact as a charity, including working successfully with sponsors and partners, is to have a simple message. And our message is quite simple. We fully encourage responsible dog ownership and we support that it is imperative to socialise dogs for their wellbeing and development. However, we also recognise that there are times and circumstances when a dog needs space and we offer a way of making other dog owners aware of this.  

We hope that the campaign will encourage dog owners to recall their dogs when they see a dog wearing a yellow ribbon or other yellow sign, giving that dog and its owner time to move out of your way and to get him used to people and animals.

We work with all our sponsors and partners to promote the Yellow Dog message that “Some Dogs Need Space”. We provide a sponsorship pack including ribbons, leaflets and posters and we allow all our sponsors and partners to use our logos and any information they need from our website.

Yellow Dog UK’s Alison Gibson-Stark – the charity’s mission is to make a very simple method of identification both accepted and recognised across the whole of the UK.
Just in case Archie’s demeanour didn’t make his position clear, his yellow bandana does.
"All our logos etc are trade marked and this is essential – we don’t want people who need our products buying inferior items."

Empowering families to get the right educational support

Why would a pair of commercial lawyers set up a charity to help the families of children with special educational needs? What can we achieve that isn’t already being tackled by other charities? And why would we even try to do this in the middle of a pandemic, when so many charities were facing collapse? These are questions I’ve been asked ever since Janvi Patel and I set up Support SEND Kids in 2020.

(SEND stands for special educational needs. Local authorities have responsibilities by law to support children and young people with SEND, up to the age of 25. The Government has issued a statutory code which contains details of legal requirements that must be followed without exception and statutory guidance that must be followed by law “unless there’s a good reason not to”.)

To begin with, it was personal. Janvi and I have a mutual friend who fought hard for the support that would allow her daughter to access an education, then watched in horror at the beginning of the pandemic as it disappeared overnight. Every child took a hit to their education that year, but for children with complex special needs the setbacks were much harder to recover from. The idea that she could be home-schooled was laughable, yet there was no way her mother could continue to work while she wasn’t in school.

To add insult to injury, on 1 May 2020 the Government changed the law, making it even easier for local authorities to withhold support for children with special educational needs. This seemed outrageous, and after examining the process, it occurred to us that this is a legal problem. As lawyers, we wanted to do something about it.

Process at fault

Janvi and I have never met in person. She lives in LA and I’m based in the Channel Islands, but these were the days of lockdown and late night Zoom calls were the perfect place to brainstorm. As Janvi points out, the problem isn’t SEND law itself, which is actually pretty fair and comprehensive in England and Wales. It’s the process which is confusing and inconsistently applied depending on the local authority you’re dealing with.

To put this into perspective, imagine a typical year group of 90 school pupils. Last year on average 10 of those children qualified for SEND support under the laws of England and Wales, but only one or two would actually receive this legal entitlement. So why can’t their parents access their rights?

Given these statistics, if you are not personally affected it is likely that you have close friends or relatives who have experienced first-hand how complicated, emotionally fraught and often cripplingly expensive it can be to access special educational support for your child. Sharp elbows, thick skins and in many cases deep pockets are required and not everybody is prepared to fight the battle, or has the resources to succeed. This is an access to justice issue and that SEND children are being denied their (human) right to an education.

The contract is the problem

At the heart of the system is the Education, Health and Care Plan or EHCP, a contract between the family and the local authority agreeing what the child needs. The problem is, this contract doesn’t provide any of the protections that we take for granted in the corporate world.

For example, parents are not offered legal aid because the system is designed, in theory, as self-serve. In reality, parents find themselves involved in complex tripartite negotiations, arguing against experienced lawyers representing the local authority as well as trying to get the right engagement from schools struggling with increasingly limited budgets.

Even before regulations watered down the requirement to provide support in the pandemic there were few incentives for the local authority to move through the process within set timeframes, causing serious damage to a child’s education.

The attempt to remove lawyers from the process has left us with an adversarial environment that pits parents against the very organisations they turned to for help and leaves lasting damage in interacting with the state. Many parents are warned by schools that if they don’t hire a lawyer they are likely to lose at tribunal and fail to secure funding. It is not unusual for parents to report spending £50,000 on this advice, and we have interviewed parents who have spent as much as £100,000.

Our late night Zoom calls continued for six months, involving a growing group of like-minded lawyers. We realised that individual parents were paying lawyers for the same advice. If we could arm parents with this information in a free, accessible, user-friendly format, we could prevent many of them from incurring astronomical legal fees, making it far more realistic for more families to access their rights.

As well as being a lawyer, I run a technology business called Senate which provides lawyers with the tools to create Wikipedia-style knowledge banks. We realised we could use Senate to connect parents with lawyers who were willing to help them interpret their rights for free, then store up the answers for the next parents who come along with the same problem.

Sharing knowledge is fundamental

Most lawyers are very motivated to offer pro bono support, and SEND lawyers in particular are a small community, overwhelmed with demand and often having to turn parents away. Sharing knowledge and enabling more parents to succeed without direct legal support allows these SEND lawyers to focus on complex cases, whilst raising awareness of the service they offer with the clients who need more than just information.

And so, the core idea was born. There are plenty of special needs charities but none focused on providing parents with information to navigate the EHCP system. As lawyers we had access to the right resources and networks. Leon Glenister and David Wolfe QC are the barristers who wrote the law on SEND and were very excited by the opportunity to translate this into digestible, meaningful Q&A for parents to access through the platform.

A team of part-time volunteers maintains the platform, matches parents’ questions with experts who can answer them, organises webinars and recruits lawyers to join on a pro bono basis.

We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of law firms like Morgan Lewis, Reed Smith, Shearman & Sterling, Shoosmiths and Boyes Turner who have provided free legal advice, IT support and domain expertise, alongside our PR company Farrer Kane who have done a brilliant job raising awareness for us, and all because they share our passion for this project.

However, whilst the core idea was to let the technology do most of the work, no matter how much we relied on the generosity of volunteers we realised we would need to raise money to keep the project going. Even with our start up backgrounds, interpreting regulations and ensuring sound governance, setting up a charity proved far harder and more time consuming than we expected and we were very lucky to get free expert advice from other lawyers to prevent the mistakes that can have such catastrophic effects for charities.

Key lessons learned

We have learned some key lessons along the way, and I’m sure there are many more to come.

Firstly, we have benefited hugely from early investment in research. Our volunteers carried out nearly 20 thorough interviews with parents, most of whom found it very painful to talk about their experience. Their words really challenged our thinking about how we could help, and focused our efforts on what became our core purpose of providing information to navigate the system, as well as emotional support through the online community.

Secondly, the team have learned to be more realistic about money. It seemed obvious that approaching wealthy companies with a clear need and a simple solution would result in straightforward fundraising success, but the reality has been far slower than anyone imagined. Many charities went under in the pandemic and the fundraising environment was hugely challenging, something now further affected by the cost of living crisis.

Undaunted, we focused on delivering more with less, as the legal profession is constantly being challenged by its clients to do. We are fortunate that we run as a virtual charity which means we can keep overheads low, unlike more traditional charities with the usual expenses.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, in 18 months from a standing start and through all the challenges of remote working the team have achieved some exceptional wins. Leading barristers in the field have translated complex case law into user-friendly “no-nonsense” guides for parents. Step by step processes and checklists are in the works.

Online forum users

There are already hundreds of users active in the online forum, asking and answering questions or just tapping into the knowledge generated by other peoples’ Q&As and attending webinars where they have access to expertise both in real time and on play-back.

We found out that to get started and tick off some real achievements we didn’t need an office, or full-time staff, or even to have met each other in real life. In fact, these things could have got in the way and prevented us from building a charity that can scale up, potentially around the world.

So, what’s next? We want to complete the SEND jigsaw puzzle, enabling parents to join up their needs with their legal rights with the minimum financial outlay and emotional wear and tear. The problem doesn’t stop when children leave formal education, and I am very excited about our project to tackle disability discrimination as these kids start to enter the workplace with all the skills their specialist education has equipped them with.

And beyond that? These are not just problems for England and Wales, or even just for the UK, and Janvi’s experience in California has turned up very familiar themes. This is a global problem, and the beauty of our technology-based solution with a distributed workforce is that it has the potential to solve the problem on a global scale, giving every SEND child access to the education they are entitled to.

Support SEND Kids’ Rachel Amos – we are fortunate that we run as a virtual charity which means we can keep overheads low, unlike more traditional charities with the usual expenses.
"There are plenty of special needs charities but none focused on providing parents with information to navigate the EHCP system."
"…we were very lucky to get free expert advice from other lawyers to prevent the mistakes that can have such catastrophic effects for charities."

The imperative of diversity and inclusion for charity success

There were two events in 2020 that made all of us in leadership roles sit up and take notice. The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd sent the saddest and starkest of reminders that we live in a world where inequality is hardwired into how so many people live and work.

Having worked in and around social justice for almost three decades, I don’t mind admitting that I did not feel prepared for the challenges it would bring and the pace that was needed to find solutions. There were lessons I learnt, and it became a powerful time to reflect on who I am as a leader and who I am responsible for when making decisions. And, perhaps most importantly, who is in the virtual room as part of the decision making.

Covid changed landscape

I went into 2020 as no stranger to the tough challenges faced by charities, in my case a career that spans the legal profession, social justice and now science. The days of those of us working in charities being seen as taking the easier option compared to the private or public sectors are well behind us.

We have a social responsibility and must handle complex strategic, people, financial, governance and system changes for charities, building trust with funders and partners. Like many of us, I have pushed for policy change by navigating the complexities of the political and economic climate both in the UK and internationally. Yet I can’t remember a time when a society shift has had such a wholescale impact on the landscape – and not before time.

According to McKinsey & Company’s 2019 Women in the Workplace report, companies that are gender and ethnically diverse are up to 35% more likely to outperform than the industry median. For many organisations, diversity and inclusion have shifted from a “nice to do” to a “must do” that brings so many rewards. It attracts people to the charity whether as employees, supporters, partners and funders.

But there is also a danger that diversity fatigue sets in and this allows excuses to be made: it’s too difficult; we can’t find the candidates; we have some diversity - what’s the problem?

So, what more can we do to shift diversity and inclusion to the “must do”?

Still a problem

A move like this has to start at the top, and reports show that leadership in the charity sector still has a problem. In 2020 a report commissioned by Third Sector magazine revealed that the proportion of charity chief executives who identify as black, Asian, minority ethnic or "other" (rather than white) had risen only slightly from 12% in 2017 to 16%, while the proportion of other senior leaders from BAME backgrounds remained static at 10%.

For trustees, the numbers rose slightly from 10% to 15%. A report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations showed that – perhaps unsurprisingly – women make up the majority of the voluntary workforce.

I am not surprised by the statistics, having been through the difficult process to recruit a new CEO for Hibiscus - the charity where I chair the board. By the nature of our work, we have a diverse team and strong leadership, yet we reflected Third Sector report ethnicity demographics at a senior level.

We were mid pandemic, with challenges of switching to virtual services for the vulnerable migrant women we support, and of course keeping our funding. We had to balance the non-negotiable skills we wanted in our new CEO and diversity of background and experiences was an important one.

Fortunately we had a recruiter, Prospectus, who didn’t just talk about diversity but shared our values and commitment. They were willing to go out several times to find candidates with the right mix of skills including diversity.

Honest conversation

The board had an honest conversation about the decisions we had to make as responsible trustees, considering the present needs, but also ensuring we could meet a changing landscape that we would be working in. That led us to take a unanimous decision to appoint a woman who was a first time CEO because she brought fresh thinking, energy and her own life experiences to the role.

Alongside this we looked at the diversity of our board and brought in new trustees from different backgrounds and experiences. It has taken a couple of years to get to where we are today but already we have a higher profile with funders and partners which is further improving the support we provide for our clients.

In a very different charity context to my board role at Hibiscus, I am deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics (IOP) which is the professional body for physicists in the UK and Ireland. Although most people would not think that a 100 year old science organisation has a long history of working on diversity and inclusion, it has been a key strand of work well before the topic became fashionable.

At the end of 2019 we had applied for the gender equality award established by the physics community and not been successful. But it was the events of 2020 that brought our work into the spotlight and caused us to step back and reflect on our focus and pace.

Our staff team and physicists were calling for greater and faster change and looked to the leadership to it right. The organisation’s reputation started to suffer with some public criticism on social media that we were falling short of expectation. As a leader it was important to listen to the diversity of voices and remember who we make decisions for.

Inclusivity builds trust

Roll forward by 12 months and we were running a programme called “Giving Voice to Inclusion”, which allowed people to have a voice in our organisation’s future. By the end of 2021, we received the gender equality award. But the biggest change has been created by the action plan which has been designed with input from the whole organisation.

Data collection has improved because teams now understand its value and purpose, colleagues have formed new networks and we are getting ready to report on ethnicity pay. As we emerge from the pandemic, our team has developed a new and inclusive way of working that is built on trust and choice.

On everyone’s minds

We are not yet where we want to be, but we are focused and there is a palatable sense that diversity and inclusion are now on everyone’s minds. Now we have more ease in conversations about our work on sustainability as we work towards net zero and how important it is to include diversity and ethics in decision making so we do not widen the inequality in finding solutions.

So what have we learnt from those early months of 2020? I think it would be easy to say we have a lot of answers, but more honest to say that time will tell. But there are three areas where some green shoots have taken root:

  • We don’t shy away from talking about diversity and inclusion in a way we didn’t before, and we are better informed about how they impact our clients, employees, members and other stakeholders.
  • There is a clear business case that sets out the reasons why it is important - the moral, legal and economic arguments.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there are honest conversations even when they are difficult and perhaps less fear of saying the wrong thing. It is absolutely not easy and probably never will be given the complexities of discussions and the impact of social media. But if we can be more informed, a little less afraid and a bit bolder. That must be a positive.
Institute of Physics and Hibiscus’ Rachel Youngman – can’t remember a time when a society shift has had such a wholescale impact on the landscape.
"…there is a danger that diversity fatigue sets in and this allows excuses to be made…"

Making charity employees feel part of a winning team

Flint House is a police rehabilitation charity, treating over 3,000 police officers each year. Its team consists of highly skilled physiotherapists, mental health practitioners and registered nurses, together enabling serving police officers to get back to full duties. We also offer retired police officers help with physical rehabilitation.

Flint House has a long history stretching back to 1890, however our more recent story began in 1985 when the historical building, Flint House, at Goring on Thames, was purchased and developed to cater for the special requirements of injured and sick officers.

Over the years, the charity has grown and developed, and the new executive team has a clear vision for the future of the charity in which delivering a world class service is at its heart. But this can’t be achieved without the full support and buy-in of the charity’s employees. And in fact, achieving a thriving charity which consistently delivers first rate service is only really possible when there’s a great employee experience.

The Flint House team recognises that the employee experience is king, in which a positive daily experience is crucial for attracting and retaining talent, and keeping everyone engaged and motivated. From removing administrative frustrations through to ensuring every individual feels a sense of belonging and value, the focus must be on delivering an excellent employee experience, which can only be realised when HR and charity leaders work in partnership with IT.

Key strategic function

It’s time for IT leaders to step up and move away from being more of an “order taking” role to having a key strategic function that helps deliver a memorable everyday employee experience. Flint House is overhauling its IT with this in mind - the IT function and executive team working together to connect our employees to a stronger purpose, bring our people together and further strengthen our family-orientated culture.

Let me explain here why IT leaders must help deliver a great employee experience and how we at Flint House are achieving this.

Understanding the employee experience

It’s important to start by understanding the “employee experience” and why it’s so vital for success. The employee experience is everything an employee hears, feels and encounters on a daily basis, from how comfortable their workspace is and how well they get on with their colleagues through to how appreciated they feel.

After all, if a charity’s culture is negative and destructive, there’s no hope of it providing a great service to its customers and enjoying ongoing success. Happy and positive employees lead to a thriving culture in which excellent service is the norm, which can be absolutely crucial, particularly where the charity is undertaking health or care related activities.

So what can charity leaders do to ensure their people enjoy a great daily experience? They must look at all aspects of the employee experience and remove frustrations, streamline existing ways of working, find ways to bring people together and ensure every person feels respected, included and valued. And IT has a key role to play.

IT and the employee experience

Processes that are heavily paper based naturally result in inefficiencies, errors and duplication of effort, and employees are left frustrated with delays and time-consuming administration. By using IT to streamline processes the employee experience is instantly improved and efficiencies are gained.

At Flint House, funding challenges meant that the IT systems started to creak at the seams and paper based processes were all too common. Employees would hold onto multiple versions of the same document and effort was being duplicated across the charity.

This problem has been solved by implementing an intranet from intranet consultancy Sorce (named the “Flintranet”) which has inbuilt workflow to enable the automated flow of information and documents. There’s now a central repository, an electronic audit trail and one version of the truth, considerably cutting down on paper chasing and improving everyday processes and procedures.

Bringing teams together

IT also has an important role to play in facilitating collaboration and supporting connections between employees. Ensuring people feel connected both technologically and emotionally, improves teamwork and creates a supportive, friendly culture. At Flint House we are proud of our family-orientated culture but recognise that more can be done to nurture it, and this includes bringing teams together.

For instance, until recently it wasn’t unusual for teams to work in a siloed fashion, once again duplicating effort and hampering collaboration. Using technology, (in our case an intranet) to break down the siloes and create greater collaboration and connections between colleagues and departments, has proven invaluable. And by ensuring the tech is mobile-enabled, nobody is excluded. For instance, our housekeeping staff access our new intranet via their mobile phones.

Of course, the technology is the enabler but how it’s used is key for facilitating connections. We’re keeping people up to date with news via the Flintranet while giving employees a platform for airing their opinions and feeding back. Providing a means for people to share stories and interact with others is a “must” for fostering a sense of belonging.

Connecting to purpose and values

The strongest cultures are those with inspiring purposes that employees can relate to and feel connected to. It’s important for this purpose to be understood, lived and breathed every day, however this is harder to achieve without supporting technologies such as intranets, collaborative online tools and social media platforms. IT helps connect employees to the charity’s purpose and values, ensuring that everyone feels part of a common and vital goal.

As part of this, there need to be tools to allow employees to celebrate the charity’s successes together, including sharing success stories and applauding the charity’s achievements. Everyone must feel that they’re part of a winning team.

Yes, word of mouth and team meetings are important channels to share achievements. However, IT can help success stories to be shared when people can’t be physically together, from delivering good news stories via the intranet through to enabling employees to share and comment on milestone achievements via social media and video calls.

People feeling appreciated

Similarly, IT has an important part to play in delivering staff appreciation and recognition. A thriving culture is only possible when people regularly feel appreciated for their efforts and achievements. As well as giving appreciation face-to-face, this can be done online. For instance, we plan to use our intranet to spotlight the achievements of the charity, our teams and individuals so that everyone feels valued and part of one big, caring team.

Finally, charities can only boast a great employee experience when everyone feels included and are able to be their authentic selves rather than putting on an act. Being inclusive of everyone, regardless of their background, gender, ethnicity, disabilities and sexual orientation, will always be more effectively supported with IT.

For instance, the right IT systems help to give people a voice and provide them with the means to be part of everyday discussions. After all, if you don’t have the tools to be part of the conversation, you’ll never feel fully included.

The IT department can no longer be simply an order taking role, providing point solutions to problems, but must recognise its crucial role in elevating the employee experience to help deliver strategic success.

Agile intranet platform

Flint House’s vision is to deliver world class service but, as with most charities, there’s a tight budget. By turning to an agile intranet platform to help improve the employee experience, the whole Flint House culture for both staff and patients is being positively impacted, bringing the vision much closer to reality.

It's an exciting but challenging time for IT, with IT professionals within the charity sector having to do more with even less. However, if done right, IT leaders can be at the forefront of cultural change, helping to build positive and thriving organisational cultures.

Flint House’s Pete Finn – the new executive team recognises that a positive daily employee experience is crucial for attracting and retaining talent, and keeping everyone engaged and motivated.
"The IT department…must recognise its crucial role in elevating the employee experience to help deliver strategic success."

Bouncing back after a Charity Commission inquiry

Human Appeal is a fully independent British development and relief charity based in Manchester, UK. It was established in 1991, and runs targeted poverty relief programmes in collaboration with global organisations like the United Nations. Our purpose is to save lives through emergency response and sustainable development programmes, across over 25 countries worldwide.

The Charity Commission is seeing a lot more media interest at the moment, having announced its investigation into the financial dealings of the Captain Tom Moore charity, among others. Indeed, in 2021, the body investigated well over 2,000 charities for their compliance, a number which is on the rise. We should know – we were one of them.

Being investigated by the Charity Commission is not something you would think that any charity would seek out. Except we did, self-reporting that a hijacking incident had occurred beyond our control while operating in a war zone, and a separate incident where a warehouse in Syria was raided by a proscribed group.

The work the Commission undertakes is vital for the wider charity sector to be able to operate effectively and continue to help as many people as possible, both domestically and overseas. Obviously, news of a compliance audit of this type may not be on many charities’ wish list. And yet, as one of the UK’s fastest growing charities, and with a new leadership team in place, we recognised that swift growth may have left certain operational areas in need of some review.

Maintaining stakeholder trust

Aside from the potential damage to the solid reputation of a respected 30 year old UK organisation which Charity Commission scrutiny brought, the other key challenge for us during this process was maintaining the trust of our stakeholders, some of whom were understandably surprised by the inquiry.

This was a primary focus for us during the three years of the review, and led to an ongoing campaign of transparency, intensively spotlighting the impact our humanitarian work was having on the lives of our beneficiaries as well as breakdowns of areas like how both our fundraising and admin fees work. We knew we had nothing to hide, but it needed repeating.

When people hear about any review or investigation, most will simply assume the worst without bothering to read the findings or wait for the final report. It is indeed rare to find individuals with the ability to refrain from judging until all the facts are ascertained. The fact the review took several years to conclude made it more challenging, as it gave space for rumours to spread, and misguided opinions both intentional and unintentional.

Naturally, we fully cooperated with the investigation, a fact that was recognised in the final announcement from the Charity Commission. We increased our reporting to donors and stakeholders, fostered a culture of zero tolerance for breaches of our policies and strive for continuous improvement in all areas of our work.

Focusing on the whole facts and nothing but the facts, we dug in as a Human Appeal family and worked harder to save more lives and reach more vulnerable people. Actions speak louder than words, and throughout the process we worked accordingly, continuing to be here for every human being without discrimination.

Investigation outcome

The positive results of this clarity became apparent by 2020, when our income reached £29 million. The previous year, our income had declined by 17.8%, due to the negative publicity. However, with the support of our campaign efforts, this decline was not only halted but actively reversed. This is all thanks to our dedicated supporters and stakeholders who ignored the rumours and speculation.

We continue to strive for year-on-year growth like any charity, and with this new focus we are confident we have the continued trust of our stakeholders to maintain expansion. This energised transparency continues to this day and has become part of the catalyst for the new era within the organisation and as a respected global British charity.

The findings of the report did not seek regulatory action be taken against Human Appeal nor call for any penalties to be imposed. Financially, not a single penny went unaccounted for. On the contrary, the report saluted the enhancements made by Human Appeal to its governance and recognised that the charity today was on a much firmer footing because of those enhancements. The report acknowledged the significant enhancements by our new leadership structure - of course tackling the changes which needed to be addressed required both considerable time and effort.

As a result, both our domestic and international processes and procedures have been strengthened. While chief among the process review was updating procedures around serious incident reporting (SIR), enhancing trustee understanding of the process, it allowed us to review internal structures in other areas too.

We hired permanent critical staff roles to lead changes to the charity’s culture, including finance director, legal counsel, international programmes director, communications director, community fundraising director, head of donor care, head of fund development Middle East, international head of programmes, programmes manager, monitoring and evaluation manager, monitoring and evaluation coordinator, and international financial controller.

We also seized the opportunity to establish a global reporting structure – including a primary reporting line for all country office staff to their country director, coupled with a second reporting line to a global technical lead based on Human Appeal HQ. In addition, all country offices now also report to their HQ counterparts.

Towards further expansion

Undertaking this rigorous process has motivated us to continue to strive for excellence within our organisation. By dint of our focus and mission, we are present in multiple locations worldwide. The charity has many moving parts, often working on numerous domestic and overseas projects and humanitarian crisis inflection points around the globe simultaneously.

This takes a high level of coordination which can embrace rapid response to moments of critical humanitarian need, balanced with maintaining a focus on long terms projects in multiple counties, such as a long-running initiative providing honeybees and livelihoods to people in Pakistan, at the same time as a team on the ground is seeking to desalinate water in the Gaza Strip. Such an intense and important process has helped us to think more critically when it comes to wider organisational impacts when expanding into new territories like the US.

Why approach one of the biggest countries in the world, one with an already thriving and well served charity landscape, during a global pandemic? Human Appeal’s vision and statement of intent are to become the global agent of change for a just, caring, and sustainable world. That means we are here for every human being who is vulnerable no matter where they are. The pandemic has sharpened many humanitarian needs, in developed countries as well as conflict zones.

As an international British charity with this intent, we are obliged to be present in as many markets as possible, especially those that can support our vision and mission. The USA was a natural next step in our plans as one of the largest economies in the world and will join our existing offices in the UK, Ireland, France and Spain.

The US market is large, highly diverse and intensely competitive. As our footprint in the country grows, we are seeking to remain open to collaboration with local partners in line with our compliance requirements. We will have two key yet distinct focus areas. One will be local programmes in the USA and the other will be outreach to international programmes from the USA.

The local humanitarian needs assessments for the USA are expected to be wide ranging, varied and differentiated. As a country, needs and structures can vary greatly from state to state, and even within the social layers of each state. To address these unique challenges, local support will be at the heart of US operations, as will outreach from the USA towards international projects.

Unified leadership base

In a short time we have completed the registration of the US office in California, and established a dedicated contact number and website which will go live shortly. Having one single CEO for both our UK and USA entities from April 2022 onwards maintains our single global vision while also reducing the potential issue of organisational complexity. When you are present in multiple countries simultaneously, transparency and clarity of the organisation as well as having clearly delineated leadership structures are essential.

The ambition and drive for our US expansion is to realise our role more fully as a global humanitarian organisation, developing our international structure with the aim of optimizing the alignment, efficiency and effectiveness of our office infrastructure around the world.

Having an official US presence means many things. It means wider reach, a bigger audience, creation of more opportunities to expand existing projects as well as developing new future projects. It also gives us access to new ideas and innovations relating to our projects covering water, sanitation, hygiene and medicine. I also believe it will open the door for further collaboration and bridge building with like-minded people and entities in the USA, which has always been a major hallmark of how we have operated from inception through to our current activities.

Collaboration with other NGOs and not for profit organisations is intrinsic to how Human Appeal operates. Existing partnerships with local US entities, such as our relationship with Globus Relief, will facilitate greater international reach. For example, provision of health and medical care in Iraq and Syria, where there are dire shortages of medical equipment and resource. The US operation also plans to lead in projects supporting the orphans and street children in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria.

We will also be actively looking into domestic projects to assist vulnerable communities around the United States as well, where it is well documented that over 13.4%[2] of the population live below the poverty threshold, an issue only increased by the Covid pandemic.

New learning curve

This doesn’t mean that we haven’t encountered growing pains. Firstly, there are the usual challenges presented by entering a new territory, the new learning curve and the endeavour to establish the right human resources for the market. Although we will be the youngest NGO to set up in the USA, we certainly aim to be the fastest growing one. Then comes building relations with the community and charity sector as well as institutional and private donors.

We know we have a lot of work to do build our network of partners, but we don’t shy away from this challenge. Saving lives is no easy task and it has taught us to be bold and thoughtful in our approach. When you are in the field of dealing with humanitarian crises daily, it teaches you to be resilient, just like doctors and nurses who deal with human suffering everyday but keep on delivering on their oath. Entry into the US was certainly a planned decision that included much internal debate and study. It is a strategic decision by Human Appeal to increase our future capacity and growth.

Organisational resilience

In a way, the Charity Commission review prepared us to take on the greater challenge of expanding again beyond our existing borders, more effectively. The organisational resilience and clarity of purpose, as well as the fresh review of reporting lines and management structures, have set us up for an expansion into the demanding market of the USA with a clean bill of health. Many similar charities with ambitions to become more global will eventually look to establish a presence within large and unfamiliar markets like the United States.

Taking a detailed look at the charity’s reporting lines, procedures and yes, diving deeply into issues of compliance are all useful projects to undertake in advance – whether externally coordinated or not. The solid foundation we have established through the review has set us up to more capably to take on the fragmented state/country level challenges which the United States offers, and we look forward to the work we can undertake with our partners in that region.

Human Appeals’ Mohamed Ashmawey – the USA was a natural next step in the charity’s plans as one of the largest economies in the world and will be joining its existing offices in the UK, Ireland and Spain.
"We increased our reporting to donors and stakeholders, fostered a culture of zero tolerance for breaches of our policies and strive for continuous improvement in all areas of our work."
"The charity has many moving parts, often working on numerous domestic and overseas projects and humanitarian crisis inflection points around the globe simultaneously."
"Saving lives is no easy task and it has taught us to be bold and thoughtful in our approach."

Successfully running a charity in Africa with digital

In this article I want to explain how my UK registered charity operates to run a nursery school teacher education programme in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. I will discuss the methods we use to achieve the otherwise daunting task of tackling a huge problem on a highly controlled basis incorporating effective performance and governance.

Let me first explain the scale of the challenge we have to meet so you can appreciate how adroitly we are doing so.

Problem of nursery education

Population numbers in many African countries are doubling every eight or so years. Indeed, the continent is forecast to account for over 40% of the global population by the end of the decade from 17% currently.

It’s not clear that this will come to pass given the implications of climate change, particularly on Sub-Saharan Africa. But, if it does, this magnitude of population growth is likely to impose a great strain on natural resources, food availability and employment opportunities in the area.

Statistics show that a girl in Africa who can read has two children, whereas a girl who can’t has five. It is clear that education must play a big part in addressing the increasing demographic burden; and, in particular, nursery school education.

Increasing demographic burden

UNESCO estimates that 42% of children will drop out of education before completing primary school. That number rises to almost 60% by the end of secondary education. Each year, over 10% of children are required to repeat a year and only 9% of school children in Namibia end up reaching university.

The challenge is that children appear to be poorly equipped for primary education on account of inadequate stimulation in their early years. For those who attend nursery school the lack of trained teachers and resources means that they get sub-optimal benefit from the experience.

Governments recognise the problem but, it being a fragmented and hard to reach sector, appear to struggle to come up with viable solutions against competing demands for their scarce financial resources.

As a result early childhood development (ECD) receives very little attention. In Namibia, for example, the authorities spend only USD 20 on ECD per child versus the USD 1,000 spent per child on primary and secondary education.

Affordable and scalable model

I founded the Perivoli Schools Trust in 2012 with the aim of finding an affordable and scalable model to address the problem. I came to understand that building schools and equipping them with materials and toys wouldn’t work. It was hard to find qualified teachers and the toys walked out of the door.

But after a while I hit on a model that focuses on training teachers rather than building buildings. A training model is very much more scalable as trained people can train others and it doesn’t matter if they move about. But given the scale of the challenge - there are an estimated 1.2 million nursery school teachers in the ten countries of sub-Saharan Africa we aim to address - it needs to be affordable.

Our approach is to show nursery school teachers the importance of play, which is not well understood in an African context where parents tend to outsource education to teachers who are invariably untrained - with many not having had a formal education themselves.

The simplest way to describe our training programme is that it’s a sort of “Blue Peter on steroids”. In essence, we show the teachers how to make educational activities out of recyclable materials, encourage them to be creative in this respect; and we show them how to organise their classrooms for the benefit of the children.

Just by using bottle tops, empty bottles, egg trays, empty cans, loo rolls, seed pods, spent yoghurt cartons, cardboard, old clothes, sheets of discarded paper and shop posters one can come up with a toy shop, matching puzzles, a reading corner, a dressing up box, a nature corner, a pretend kitchen, a music corner etc.

The materials cost nothing and the teachers take great pleasure and pride in equipping their classrooms which are otherwise invariably threadbare. They love to compare notes with ideas that they have come up with; and the toys do not walk out of the door as nobody wants to steal an empty Coke bottle or a used loo roll.

The children like to collect items to bring to school, make choices as to which activity to get involved in, learn to take turns and allow their imaginations to stretch.

How it works

We rely on trainers - we call them Perivoli Trainers - and now have almost 200 in our service. They are assigned to train groups of up to 25 nursery school teachers at a time, drawn from the locality where they live so they are already part of the community.

They deliver 16 training modules to the group over a two year period which shows the teachers the importance of play and how to stimulate various aspects of a child’s development. An individual trainer might be running two to three groups in parallel, i.e. interacting with as many as 75 nursery school teachers.

In between modules, the trainers run support groups where the teachers come together to exchange experiences and show to each other some of the items they have made for, and with, the children in their classes. These events engender a sense of community and shared experience, as being a nursery school teacher can be a lonely activity.

An essential part of the programme are the class visits. The trainers visit teachers in their classrooms once a month in the first year, and once every second month in the second year, to help with the implementation of the programme and to track how teachers are performing.

These visits are an opportunity for one-on-one attention and are invariably the only in-class support a teacher ever gets. Consequently, they are much valued and a strong relationship develops between trainer and teacher.

The aim is for each classroom to end up with twelve so-called Perivoli Corners - areas of play activities. We measure a teacher’s progress according to the rate at which they have established these corners.

Once a teacher has completed the two year training programme they are invited to attend a graduation ceremony where they are awarded a Perivoli Certificate. This is invariably a moving event with teachers turning up in gowns and singing songs. It is often the first time they have ever enjoyed formal recognition.

After graduation, we make sure to retain contact with teachers through so-called maintenance class visits, which take place on a termly basis. This allows us to continue to keep a watchful eye on the teachers, help them as needs be and offer further instruction. For example, recently we have introduced a programme whereby the trainers show cartoons to the children on their tablet computers.

Original model still going

We started in Namibia with the originl model in 2013, where we have now trained the vast majority of the country’s nursery school teachers, then began in Malawi in 2018, where we have reached about 15%, and Zambia in 2019; and will be launching in Uganda and Botswana in 2022 still with the same model.

We have Tanzania, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique all in our sights. In total, we have trained over 10,000 teachers already and target reaching 200,000 over the coming ten years.

Our only costs are the amounts we pay our trainers: USD 30 for a module delivered, USD 15 for running a support group, and USD 10 per class visit (plus travel costs). Our trainers make between USD 250 to 300 per month, a reasonably high number in a local context, which is why they have tended to stay with us over many years.

On the assumption that there are 25 children in a classroom (invariably there are many more) the programme costs only about USD 3 per child per annum.

Our management structure

Our trainers are organised in teams of four or five which report to a regional coordinator who keeps an eye on them, directs them and verifies their activities.

The regional coordinators report to three or four senior regional coordinators per country who report to the CEO team, a husband-wife combo, Maya Kufuwa and Titan Madomba, who happen to be based in Malawi but who oversee all countries from there.

Maya and Titan report to me as Programme Director. I visit the region frequently (about three or four times a year pre-Covid) to visit schools, assess progress, meet ministry officials and develop plans for launching in additional countries. Beyond me, everybody else involved is local from within Africa.

Strong digital backbone

One of the greatest assets we have is our strong digital backbone. This has been purposely designed by us for our requirements. It was built by a firm based in Malawi and has cost over £150,000 to customise and roll out.

Each trainer is equipped with a tablet computer with which they are required to record information about the teachers and children at each of their interactions. For example, at a class visit, the trainer would record which children attend and track how the teachers are progressing with establishing the Perivoli Corners.

The data is held in a central database made available to the regional coordinators. They use the information to direct trainers to provide more support to teachers making the least progress with implementing the Perivoli Corners. The tablets are fitted with geo-location capabilities. Any data entry that was not entered from the location of the school in question is flagged up which helps to ensure that class visits do actually take place as reported.

The database is also used to measure the regional coordinators’ effectiveness, with the possibility of six-monthly bonuses dependent on the overall performance of their T trainers.

Real time data helps me keep an eye on our progress in terms of the number of teachers in the programme, numbers of class visits and numbers of children addressed. For example, in 2021, and despite the disruption of Covid resulting in some schools not opening, the tablets allow me to see, at a glance, that we interacted with 5,883 nursery school teachers in 2,988 schools and undertook 23,177 class visits across three countries - Namibia, Malawi and Zambia.

The existence of the database ought to make it possible to scale to the 200,000 teachers that we target over time.

Governance and stakeholders

We take governance very seriously. We seek the consent of all stakeholders at all times. This means requesting the trainers, the nursery school teachers and the parents or guardians of the children to sign consent forms. This is not strictly speaking necessary under local laws but we set ourselves UK-level GDPR standards. We already have in our database photographs of over 32,000 consent forms.

We also interact with local government ministries. This means both the Ministries of Gender and Child Welfare, who have oversight over very young children, and the Ministries of Education, who overlook five-year-olds upwards. The fact that ECD falls under the auspices of two separate ministries explains, in part, why these countries tend to struggle with ECD.

Before commencing our work in a given country we always establish a local charity within which to house it. This can be an arduous and costly process but helps us to be taken seriously. We like to invite local government officials to hand out the Perivoli Certificates at the graduation ceremonies.

Funding and venture capital

The Perivoli Schools Trust has been funded hitherto by the Perivoli Trust which I established in 1999, following the gifting of my stake in an investment management firm that I had co-founded in 1996 called Arisaig Partners. My job as an emerging markets fund manager took me around the world including to Africa where I began to see at close quarters some of the challenges the continent faces.

In 2016, a new trust was established called Perivoli Innovations which invests in early stage, venture capital type opportunities in medical, life science, digital and climate change focused technologies. I advise the trustees in selecting investment candidates. Most are spin-outs from UK universities but some are located in Africa.

Profits from this trust will go towards funding the Perivoli Schools Trust in due course. Over 50 investments have been made to date with many showing strong early promise. Indeed two have already exited profitably. So I am hopeful that there will be ample resources to fund the programme over the foreseeable future without needing to resort to third party support.

I have no doubt from my visits to the region and many days spent visiting nursery schools - I must have visited well over one hundred - that the Perivoli Schools Trust has a very positive impact. It seems to be much appreciated by our trainers, the nursery school teachers and the parents of the children.

Impact assessment

That said, I wish for a more formal measure to assess its impact. As our database records which primary school each child goes onto from nursery school, we are able to track the children as they progress through their education. We have been given permission by Ministries of Education to do just that, although this process has been set back by Covid.

I’m keen also to see the programme’s impact assessed by a third party. So, we are in the process of commissioning a study by the University of Bristol in combination with the University of Namibia to assess its impact in that country. I’m hoping it will report its findings by early 2023.

Perivoli Schools Trust’s James Alexandroff – governments in Africa recognise the problem of nursery school education but, it being a fragmented and hard to reach sector, appear to struggle to come up with viable solutions against competing demands for their scarce financial resources.
"In essence, we show the teachers how to make educational activities out of recyclable materials, encourage them to be creative in this respect, and we show them how to organise their classrooms for the benefit of the children."
"Each trainer is equipped with a tablet computer with which they are required to record information about their teachers and children at each of their interactions."

Being successful when a small fish in a big pond

Operating a smaller charity can be daunting and does come with its own hurdles, but I find it so rewarding as our size allows us to make a global difference whilst still being able to offer support on a more individual and personal level. As CEO of a small charity, the Head & Neck Cancer Foundation, I find everything is easier, friendlier and kinder.

As a smaller organisation, we can only be envious of the greater reach and funds that a large charity can benefit from. However, I have never seen this as a limiting factor but simply a hurdle that encourages us to do things differently and I am so proud of what we are achieving. For such a small charity we are breaking ground through our research and development and have pioneered numerous new treatments that are becoming widely adopted among UK and global cancer units.

After many years of working with smaller charities and third sector organisations, here are my top tips to success when you are up against the big fish:

Building supporters with quality

Being a small charity means we do not get the volume of donations that more well known charities do. This means that we need to be at the top of our game, and it motivates me to never become sloppy or do things the easy way. We are constantly pushing to provide quality fundraisers and events that will engage our supporters and attract new ones.

In a situation where you may not have as many donors as larger charities, it is so important to connect and interact with your community to keep them engaged with your cause and to promote regular donations.

At HNCF everything is personal. If you contact us, I will respond personally. If you raise money for us, our trustee Sir Frederick Hervey-Bathurst sends you a handwritten letter of thanks. If you have a medical question, one of our expert trustees will respond. If you need support, our Facebook supporters and friends will contact you one-to-one. This is something that larger charities are not able to do.

Although we are making differences on a global scale, we pride ourselves on being small and perfectly formed. It is not a numbers game, and this means that we can offer closer and more valuable support to those within our reach. By taking this approach, we have created a group of wonderful, loyal supporters who believe in what we do.

Work to your strengths

Whilst we do encounter hurdles, there are many strengths in being a small charity and it is important that you harness these when the big fish cannot, to stay one step ahead. Being smaller means we can be fluid and quick to respond - Covid-19 showed us that. When making decisions there are fewer voices that need to be heard so we can take action quickly.

Having a compact but talented team means that we all know each other’s skills and expertise and are happy to let others lead and advise in specific areas. Larger charities may be saturated and have additional structures within their teams that can slow them down in this sense.

Work with other charities

Rather than looking at similar charities as competition, it is important to explore ways in which you can work together. Teaming up with other charities is a great way to benefit from each other’s reach and expertise.

In my view, smaller charities should focus on specific issues rather than generic ones. As a result of this, I find we are less competitive and can create strong informal collaborations with other experts and colleagues to achieve a shared mission. Sharing our knowledge with other likeminded organisations can only have a better outcome for our patients.

As a smaller charity looking specifically at head and neck cancers, we often find that we are just one branch of a larger tree. A really powerful collaboration idea is to lobby together with other charities working towards a larger, overarching goal.

HNCF did this as part of HPV Action, a group which campaigned for universal vaccination for over five years until the government’s vaccination advisory committee changed its mind and finally decided in 2019 that HPV vaccination should be extended to adolescent boys and not only girls.

More recently, we have collaborated with more than 46 other cancer charities, on behalf of people with cancer, to recommend solutions for some of the biggest issues that the next government will face post Covid 19.

Together we created the One Cancer Voice charity coalition and have highlighted the importance of governments across the UK quickly turning their ambitions of restoring and transforming cancer services into a reality. It is so wonderful to see such progress being achieved through collaboration and I hope that our work can act as an example and a catalyst to encourage you to do the same.

Make a difference

No matter the size, a successful charity is one that makes a difference. We play a vital role in society, and everyone benefits from that. I urge all charities to recognise the amazing things that they are achieving rather than comparing themselves to others. We all help in lots of different ways - giving information and direction, leading research and development or raising awareness of an issue. Like most charities we do a mix of these things.

All charities, big or small, bring together people who care about a cause so that they can make a difference. Forget about size. Even the smallest charities can create huge positive impact as long they are constantly evolving and doing things differently.

My final piece of advice to other smaller charities which feel they are competing with the larger charities is to stop. Stop feeling like you’re competing and stop trying to compete. Know your niche, focus on what you do and do it well.

Head & Neck Cancer Foundation’s Michelle Vickers – being smaller means we can be fluid and quick to respond.
"Teaming up with other charities is a great way to benefit from each other’s reach and expertise."