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Get Away!?

As Spring bursts through the door, thoughts often turn towards an annual team away day - a day out of the office, as a team – considerations of the who, what, where and how; though not always the why.

In some organisations, away days don’t happen at all. In others, they are little more than an expected ‘perk’ - a day out somewhere nice. Not that they shouldn’t be jolly, and an attractive, creative setting can be very fruitful, but carving out time, together as a team, away from the demands of everyday work, shouldn’t be seen as a luxury. If done well, with thought and planning, away days can be vital and transformative.

As well as the undeniable benefits of a break from the usual routines, and the (sometimes healing) chance to spend less pressured time with colleagues, the most successful away days that I have been a part of (both facilitating and participating) have been those with a clear purpose. And a purpose that relates to the mission, to the work and the issues that are current. But it doesn’t have to be too adventurous - in some ways the more modest the better. What’s important is that everyone understands that there is a direction and has the chance to contribute, to shape and to listen – that they are not simply being ‘preached at’.

So why get away? There are several reasons to take a day away, and three of them start with the letter R! - Reflect, Refocus, and Realign.

  • Reflect – much of our working life is frantically busy; racing from one task to the next, with barely a moment to wonder ‘why?’ It is time well spent to stand back, to reflect upon our mission, to see the bigger picture and where we fit in - why are we here? are we doing the right things?
  • Refocus – once we’ve checked in on why we’re doing what we are, it’s good to create the mental space to consider whether we’re doing the right things and not just being busy – are we going about things the right way? Whilst the end purpose maybe the same, do we need a new goal?
  • Realign – with the organisational goals (re)established it can be useful to realign – to take stock of the progress made so far and to think about the right activities for the coming 12 months – is it ‘business as usual’? Should there be some new activities? Should some things change direction or be wound down?

To achieve this some away days are run ‘in house’, but there are good reasons for having an external facilitator – if you’re thinking of one here are some tips:

  • Away days are often in addition to everyday work and so planning them can be a good intention but that only happens that morning. An external facilitator should help you think about this well in advance, and shape the day accordingly.
  • It can be important to think differently and someone from outside, especially if they regularly run such days, should bring a freshness and creativity that creates a new viewpoint and breaks through set patterns of thought.
  • An external facilitator frees people up in different ways:
    • with someone from outside the usual dynamics shift and quieter voices more readily find they can be heard,
    • those who usually lead are enabled to take a less up-front role and given space to reflect on what others are saying,
    • with someone else keeping things to time and on track everyone can focus on the content and others contributions.

So, whilst a good away day is an investment (not least in staff time away from other tasks), done well it should pay returns many times over in terms of morale and team cohesion, and ultimately in fulfilling the mission and re-galvanising everyone to deliver it - arguably the most important day of the year.

Do you want to dance?

partnership word-maze

With over 166,000[i] charities in the UK and new registrations running at around 400 a month, I can’t be the only person to wonder if there shouldn’t be more collaboration and partnership. A new Good Governance[ii] draft code recommends that “trustees consider partnership working, merger or dissolution if others are seen to be fulfilling similar purposes more effectively” (s.1.4.2). Whilst there were many more partnerships and countless collaborations, in the year to 30th April 2016[iii] only 54 mergers took place. Especially when resources are tight working with others is something to consider as a way of enhancing service provision. Moreover, I find it deeply saddening when charities go to the wall because they were unable or unwilling to work with others or didn’t start the process until it was too late.

Making significant changes to a charity are as not easy as an outsider might think. In addition to more obvious strategic, operational, financial and legal considerations, charities are often loaded with an emotional legacy that makes such change difficult to entertain. They may have been established in response to personal tragedy or a corporate sense of mission, which no one would want to decry – making the world a better place is the generic charity mission statement. Then there are concerns about job security, about unmet need, about ‘letting people down’… But sometimes the organisation itself takes on a life of its own and can begin to dictate the future.

The challenge is not to allow an (otherwise positive) sense of attachment to cloud what should always be the primary focus – the beneficiaries. The cause should be considered way ahead of the needs of the delivery vehicle.

I’ve had the privilege of working on some mergers, helping to form partnerships, and negotiating takeovers – they are rarely simple. Some time ago I was charged with dissolving the charity that I had spent 8 hard years establishing – that was emotionally tough!

In this emotionally charged atmosphere, sometimes with the additional pressures of funding difficulties, the following are some considerations that I’ve found to be important:

  • Trust – when any of us is considering working with others trust is vital. We are taking a risk with the future and need to know that is in safe hands. Having enough ‘courtship’ time to build this trust is often a good start.
  • Time - whilst it is good to keep the process moving, undue haste or unnecessary deadlines can mean insufficient time is given to getting to know each other, working through the detail, reflecting, and building trust. When organisations are ‘pushed’ into making a decision because they ‘have’ to, difficulties may soon follow.
  • Language can often play a big role. As people try to find common ground, there is a potential pitfall of assuming that we all understand words the same way. Moreover, it can be disastrous if one or other party discovers, some way along the journey, that they have a different understanding, and that hard-built trust rapidly dissolves.
  • Starting talking when you’re strong. The best partnerships are built when all parties are strong. This doesn’t mean there has to be equality, but in my experience the best arrangements are forged when either party can walk away if they need to.
  • Honesty and transparency - diplomacy and tact should be to the fore but this shouldn’t be an excuse for hiding the truth. If it’s a takeover, don’t call it a partnership – sooner or later the truth will out and any sniff of deception can see the whole process collapse. An early and mutual exploration of motivations and options is a good place to start.
  • Having objective support and constructive challenge can be of real help - often someone completely external to the organisation/s and who has no vested interest can help separate the emotion from the pragmatic - facilitating conversations, providing reassurance, clarifying, carrying out some of the leg work, advising, progress chasing.

Working with others is not for everyone and not always straightforward. But enhanced and more efficient service provision that profits the beneficiaries can often make it an important consideration and something that should be weighed up on a regular basis.


If you, or someone you know, would like to discuss help with developing a partnership or a collaboration, or even a dissolution, please get in touch.


[i] UK Government Official Statistics: 166,311 at 30 September 2016

[ii] Out for consultation until 3 Feb 2017,

[iii] “The Good Merger Index” – Eastside Primetimers

Bench marketing - don’t miss the unexpected

I’ve recently been helping St Sidwell’s Community Centre, Exeter to improve their public engagement – particularly attracting those living and working locally to their centre and café. Simultaneously they have been constructing some hand-carved seating: the work – hand tools only, including splitting the oak trunk into planks - being carried out by community volunteers under the supervision of a qualified craftsman. Funded as a creative opportunity to develop skills and confidence and to help to break down barriers, the benches were also to make the grounds more attractive – set back from the main thoroughfare, the former grave yard, often frequented by street drinkers, was preventing people from discovering the community centre and patronising the café.

The three benches went in two weeks ago and the unintentional ‘marketing’ impact has been remarkable – the whole ‘feel’ of the place has been transformed - the public are much less intimidated, are asking questions and walking up the path to use the centre and café, people are coming to sit on the benches and enjoy the grass and flower beds.

More over there is a new level of pride and ownership as illustrated by one regular drinker who, when asked to move, not only happily did so, but also commented that there should be more litter bins for him to put his rubbish in and help keep the place more tidy!

I would love to say that the benches were a core strand of our marketing plan, but more than any amount of branding, press releases, flyer distribution etc. these community creations have engaged the public and generated interest. Alongside our planning, clear explanations of what we do, ensuring a warm welcome, promoting forthcoming events, strong social media, etc. we should always be willing to learn, leave space for the unexpected and embrace and celebrate it when it lands in our lap.

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