“It’s easy to forget that charities have to run as a business, that they have to focus on the bottom line in the same way as a corporate organisation. But at the same time, we have to make sure that we’re delivering our charitable aims and corporate social good, that our beneficiaries are receiving a service from us, and that leads to a whole range of complexity.
Funding for charities, for example, can be incredibly complex, with a mixture of income streams, including long term and short term grant funding, commercial activity as well as donations and membership income.
Charities are therefore juggling a lot. We’re constantly thinking about sustainability – focusing on the bottom line to make sure that we’re going to exist long-term, so that we can continue supporting those who need us. At the same time, they have to ensure they meet their ethos of ‘working for the public good’. For The Fostering Network, that means improving the foster care system, and making sure that foster carers – and the children they look after – are supported as best they can be.
To achieve that, we want our staff to not just be competent and legally compliant, but excellent at what they do. This can be a real challenge when you’re offering third sector wages, and you also don’t know exactly where your funds are coming from in the next six months or a year.
Historically lots of charities would have delivered programs and projects that were grant funded and then they would have ended. What I saw when I arrived at The Fostering Network was a range of projects which were coming to an end, and then a new grant application would be made. So that sometimes meant a whole new direction. Many staff were also on fixed term contracts, which wasn’t helpful in terms of planning your workforce strategy.
Increasingly charitable organisations like ours are therefore using grant funding to kick start initiatives, to then convert them into commercial, sustainable activity. The Fostering Network has done this with a specialist program called the Mockingbird programme, which is a way of structuring and supporting foster carers.
The Mockingbird programme delivers the Mockingbird Family Model. One foster home acts as a hub, offering planned and emergency sleepovers and short breaks, advice, training and support, for six to 10 satellite households. The model was originally developed by The Mockingbird Society in America in 2004.
We started the programme here with grant funding from the Department of Education, from The Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, but we’ve converted that to a commercial model. So we’re more sustainable in the longer term. It means that we can now focus on the future, and have two, three and four-year plans. That means we can think about what our learning and development needs are.
Historically, charities have also not been very good at making sure that their staff are financially literate. We’ve made it a priority to focus on this, so our staff understand the issues around sustainability, business planning and development. As a result, I believe that everyone tries to use our resources the best we can. And when we’re running programs, we think from the very beginning about their life cycle and legacy in terms of converting to a more commercial-minded approach.
We also try to make sure that our workforce is agile. We’ve ensured that staff get the right support, and have the right IT connections, so they can do their job from a variety of areas. We’re a UK-wide organisation but we can’t afford to have offices based everywhere. So, a spend on improving IT services means our work force can be more agile. As a result of the Covid 19 lockdown we have moved all of our staff to home working. This has accelerated our approach to move some services on line but also our use of IT for virtual meetings. I’m sure that much of this will continue into the future, reducing travel and adding to our green agenda.
A lot of our work is actually out in the community with our fostering services and carers. So, it’s important to think about how we build sustainable learning and development programmes, investment in the right areas, that supports the workforce.
One of the ways that we’ve done that is through our Charity Learning Consortium investment, because through that we know our staff can pick on a variety of topics that focus, for example, on management, and on that financial literacy that is so important, as well as the specialist areas they work in.”
This article is based on an interview with Kevin Williams, CEO of The Fostering Network, which will be livestreamed on Learning Now TV on 13 August . It will also be available to watch on the LNTV website shortly afterwards. The interview was carried out by Michelle Parry-Slater, and is one of several spotlights on charities, supported by the Charity Learning Consortium.
Find out more about previous LNTV charity spotlight interviews with Michelle Parry-Slater and the following charities by clicking on the links below:
- Organisational development leads transformation at Shelter
- Peer education 101 with Naomi Hurrell and Mhairi Mackay from Girlguding
- Spotlight on apprenticeships with Tom Boyesen-Corballis from the Prince’s Trust
- Top tips for creating an L&D strategy with Paul Hodgkinson from saha, the Salvation Army Housing Association
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