The waters that a third sector organisation must navigate in order to sustain a service are choppy, to say the least: macroeconomic factors, government policy, local priorities, external stakeholders and the actions of competitors rarely make for plain sailing.
Over the last five years, the 22 organisations in the Realising Ambition portfolio have grappled with an enormous amount of change – positive and negative –influencing their ability to replicate their services in new areas. The £25m Big Lottery Fund programme was an investment in replicating evidence-based, promising interventions that improve outcomes for young people and prevent them from entering the youth justice system.
Here we offer tips we have gleaned in our role in supporting the Realising Ambition grantees to steer a course to organisational development and replication when often faced with some stormy external conditions.
Ariel is an educational charity that aims to build resilience in young people, working with them to tackle important issues in their lives and change their attitudes, behaviour and levels of achievement.
They develop multimedia projects to address social issues, including racial and homophobic bullying, alcohol misuse and online grooming and sexual exploitation.
Realising Ambition supported Ariel to replicate its suite of interactive software package, It’s Not OK!, for secondary school students. The programme also helped to develop and launch CyberSense, Ariel Trust’s first resource targeting primary school students which includes a range of interactive multi-media activities for raising raise awareness of cyber bullying and promoting online safety.
In order to avoid running aground, Ariel managed to successfully read the changing tides of government policy which meant that schools were no longer required to provide PSHE (personal, social and health education). They recognised that this would pose a risk to demand for its products and potentially threatened their existence. So as part of a broader consideration of the policy landscape, Ariel shifted its focus to the PREVENT agenda (the government’s counter-terrorism strategy to stop radicalisation). Capitalising on the opportunities it presented they created new content that would be valued by schools and other commissioners, while continuing to further the charity’s mission.
Paul Ainsworth, Chief Executive of the Trust, describes such external opportunities and challenges organisations like Ariel Trust face as “headwinds and tailwinds”. If you’re part of an organisation, particularly a small or medium-sized charity or social enterprise, and want advice for successfully navigating the high seas of the market, to make the most of the opportunities and mitigate against potential threats, such as Ariel Trust have, take a note of our four top tips.
- Keep a lookout
Gathering the right information about the market in which you operate is essential. This was one of the key learning points from Realising Ambition, emphasised in our Programme Insight 10, but an earlier Insight paper also highlighted how important proactive engagement with key customers and commissioners is to gathering this market intelligence. For Ariel Trust, this means listening to – and being led by – the teachers who use their products in the classroom and who are in daily contact with the issues young people are facing.
“It’s also essential to have a cross-check mechanism”, says Paul. This means calibrating ‘on the ground’ information with systematic desk research and proactive engagement with broader trends. Ariel Trust sets aside time for their staff to attend government briefing sessions to get the latest insight into academic and policy developments in their field. This allows them to be on the front foot in planning new products and services that meet market needs.
- Be focused
Beware of information overload, it can slow you down! Research and intelligence gathering often brings to the surface an overwhelming number of agendas and issues for a small organisation to analyse and prioritise. Ariel Trust tries to consider all of these but then settle on a clear way forward:
“We make space in team meetings to reflect on emerging policy areas and local priorities”, explains Paul. “There is often a range of views and so at first, my role is to chair the discussion. Members of the team present an area of interest and why they think the organisation should focus on it. My role then becomes to weigh up the options, choose the ones I think are best and find a way to take the whole team with me”.
This also shows the need for a good captain at the helm. We have seen across the RA portfolio that good leadership is essential to organisational success. In the case of a smaller organisation like Ariel Trust, a downside of being overly flexible is that the team could end up pulling in different directions. Clear structures and internal communication processes are also key to ensuring this does not happen.
- Be nimble
These may seem like challenging times for small charities and social enterprises, but when it comes to anticipating and responding to changing external conditions, captaining a dinghy rather than an oil tanker can be a huge advantage.
The absence of a big balance sheet to fall back on requires creativity and innovative thinking. This could be seen as the organisational equivalent of ‘tacking’ – not making directly for your destination but being pragmatic about the conditions in which you are operating and setting a heading in the right general direction. Things which help can you do so include:
- Broad goals that don’t hamper a smaller organisation’s ability to be responsive.
- Smaller teams, allowing the process of gathering, analysing and acting on intelligence to happen quickly.
- High levels of trust and cohesiveness among team members to smooth the process.
- Be honest
As a small organisation you decide to respond to the market in a particular way but this can often reveal places where you may have gone wrong. It’s ok to make mistakes as long as you spot them quickly, says Paul:
“We give ourselves scope to fail and failure is fine. But it’s essential to have mechanisms to identify failure early and act quickly”.
Good monitoring processes, strong internal communication and decisive leadership continue to be key to helping the organisation find the right course.
What we found at the end of our Realising Ambition journey
We have learned from Realising Ambition that the ability to adapt to the context in which services are delivered is key to good replication. Data and intelligence about what’s working is also essential for organisations to improve their services and their ability to deliver them well. This also needs to be supported by good leadership and clarity about what the organisation does well and why.
All these characteristics are necessary for successful sustainability but not sufficient, although they do help to steer the ship in the right direction. Bon voyage!