…part of the Diamond Dozen series
Dr Beccy Bowden, SATRO talks about
charity . volunteers . upcoming talent
Elaine… If anyone knows about managing scarce resources to deliver impressive results it’s you. What are the most important leadership lessons you have learnt about making a difference on a shoe-string?
Beccy… The most important two things that SATRO has done which have enabled us to survive losing 50% of our income with 2 day’s notice followed by serious downturn in charitable funding are :
1. Understanding our USP – what is it that we as an organisation do better than anyone else?
2. Ensure we get the best possible return on investment from every penny.
SATRO is a charity – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand what we are good at – and find ways to be the best – and also understand what we should not try and do – even if it looks like there might be a pot of money available to do that.
SATRO is a charity that enables volunteers from all areas of the working world to get involved with programmes to inspire young people about their future careers. So first and foremost we are a charity that is very good at recruiting, training and supporting volunteers – making it easy for them to volunteer, and making them want to carry on volunteering. Also, without those volunteers we have no USP whatsoever. So we better provide focus and resources on staying the best possible organisation to volunteer for. When I joined SATRO in 2008 it was difficult to say how many volunteers we had – there was no central register or system for supporting them – we probably had around 3-400 at most. At the time of writing we have over 1,100 on the database. 100% of our volunteers supporting events in 2014-15 said they wanted to volunteer again for us. We are never short of volunteers for our programmes and events.
When a charity has 50% of its funds cut it is easy to ‘chase’ pots of money to replace that funding – if you don’t think very carefully about where you want to go to. So if we have the best possible range of business volunteers to support our events and therefore a huge range of people to inspire young people, we have to keep them busy by having a range of opportunities spread over the year which they can get involved in (a volunteer who is not given a job to do will drift away). We therefore need to understand the schools and colleges that we work with and the extreme pressures they are under – and how we can help. We know that careers inspiration, whilst important, is not the most important thing for schools and colleges. So there is absolutely no point in us chasing pots of money to run exciting new events if the schools and colleges don’t want to attend them because they’re too busy, or they don’t fit with their timetable. A good idea is great – but if you don’t market test it before going ahead with it then it could be an expensive mistake.
Likewise, know your strengths and play to them – in Charity-land you can partner up with others with complementary expertise if you are smart. SATRO runs a fleet of mobile classrooms teaching construction skills – we have a healthy business with the schools that we know well, but we also know that our unique way of teaching is exceptionally good for other sorts of learners – for learning-supported adults, for ex-offenders, or for those who have dropped out of education. We have reached all these groups, and more, in the last five years by finding partner organisations to work with – we bring the vehicle and the expert tutors, they bring a small group of people who would hugely benefit from learning these skills. That way it is a win-win – and both organisations are achieving something they couldn’t do on their own – without trying to turn themselves onto something they are not. SATRO has no expertise in supporting homeless young people – but we can teach them skills that might lead them into employment, and raise their self-worth. Our partner organisation can teach them the other skills they will need to achieve and move on from the situation they are in.
I often find myself in meetings with other charity CEO’s frowning at me for using a particular word or phrase because it is ‘business speak’ – and ‘return on investment’ I guess is one of those – but I firmly believe that every single charity should be looking at the return on investment it gets for every single penny it receives. That return on investment should be measured in a change to whatever problem it is you are trying to fix. So SATRO’s return on investment is how many young people have we inspired about their future career? Are we sure that we inspired them – that we provided them with the knowledge or experience to move forward on their chosen career path? Could we have done any better? If these questions are asked of all income then the amount spent on activities not supporting your core objectives is minimised. Also you focus on the ‘best stuff’ not just the ‘good stuff’. Everything SATRO did seven years ago, before our funding was cut, was ‘good’. But was it the best, making the most difference and the biggest impact? No it wasn’t – now it is and it does. It is really hard cutting activities in Charity-land because it is all ‘good’, and it is all addressing a need.
Elaine… I have always wanted to ask you this question. Don’t be afraid! Volunteers are a special and valuable asset for SATRO yet this type of working relationship can bring its own set of leadership challenges. What advice would you give to anyone leading volunteers and/ or voluntary boards?
Beccy… My advice to those working with volunteers is the same as those working with staff really – understand them, try and understand what motivates them and why they do what they do. Sometimes people would be better managers if they thought their staff could just walk away at any time – as volunteers can do.
The key to keeping everyone on board – or as many as you can through immense change – is to communicate, communicate, communicate – involve your staff and volunteers in developing the clear vision and plan for where you are going and how you are going to get through a challenging situation. Keep telling that story – keep reminding staff and volunteers alike where the organisation is heading and how what is going on at the present time fits into that journey. Sometimes too you have to understand if the change is huge – as SATRO’s has been – that you will not take 100% of people with you – which can be hard.
Volunteers – again like paid staff – in large part just want to be helpful and needed – so it is far better to give them clear roles and involve them in whatever change is taking place. This is very true of Boards of Trustees too – I wouldn’t have got through the last seven years without some outstanding Trustees at SATRO – but there were plenty of times when I had to go to the Board and say ‘things are very much touch and go, the staff and I want to do this, what do you think….?’. I’m a Trustee of a couple of Charities and I know that sometimes the CEO’s don’t want to admit to the Board that they don’t have all the answers – but every Trustee joined to help, and that’s what they will do if you give them the chance.
Elaine… You have a special interest in inspiring young people and championing STEM-related careers and opportunities. What 3 top tips would you give to STEM businesses wishing to connect and engage with young people?
Beccy… I meet all sorts of STEM businesses who are struggling to recruit young people – and also, increasingly recently, struggling to understand what motivates young people to succeed once they are employed by a company. My top tips are:
1. Make The Effort To Understand. Young people today want different career structures than their parents – and if companies don’t take time to understand that then they will continue to struggle to attract and retain young people. In many areas of STEM – particularly engineering, but also some areas of computing and pharmaceuticals too, the career progression and rewards systems were designed by a different generation – and everything from the office environment to the way the job spec is written is off-putting to the current generation of young people looking for employment.
2. Open Your Doors. The first thing I always say to companies is – get to know some young people! Open your doors to work experience students, interns, apprentices. If that’s a little daunting at first then volunteer for some of our events – or even better for a mentoring programme so that you can really get to understand what makes young people tick – only then will you understand how to make your workplace look attractive to the next generation.
3. Be Creative. One of the wonderful SMEs we work with volunteered regularly for us at careers speed date events – at one such event they bumped into a lad who was not getting on at school at all. The company designs and builds websites and the young person had never really thought there was such a job. The company like him so much they created an apprenticeship position for him. He’s made a huge difference to their business – and they have literally changed his life. No recruitment fee, no employing someone and having to retrain them only to lose them 6 months later. Just 2 hours volunteering time.