Consolidate or expand? Helping a charity reach agreement on the way forward

Northwood African Education Foundation

“I think these strategy days always need professional moderating, otherwise they become a talk fest. David was employed to undertake that job for us and did that very well. I thought it was a very productive day. I would have hoped for more in the way of thoughts on what the future might be but that did not happen. Most of the participants thought “let's consolidate before moving on to anything else” and I recognise that it's something we need to revisit in future.”

Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, Chairman, NAEF

Northwood African Education Foundation was established in 2011 by Sir Malcolm and Lady Colquhoun, who owned Northwood Schools in London. The parents, children and staff at the schools played a major role in fundraising and in 2014 the charity opened a primary school for 500 children in Azezo, northern Ethiopia. The Colquhouns subsequently sold Northwood Schools but the connection remained in place.

July 2022 would see the first intake of Year 8s reaching Secondary school age and, therefore, needing support in their next step in education, as well as society. In addition, Sir Malcolm, who is Chairman of the charity, felt the time had come for him to stand down and wanted to leave the charity with a new vision and direction to build on the achievements to date. He felt the charity needed to recruit in order to become “more professional and focused”.

Having spoken to Action Planning two years previously about advice on charity fundraising and publicity – before the pandemic forced those plans to be shelved – Sir Malcolm and Executive Director Ann-Marie Rania asked us to facilitate a Vision Day for the trustees and leadership team. David Saint took on the brief.

David spoke to Sir Malcolm and Ann-Marie to pin down exactly what they wanted to achieve from the day. Ann-Marie then organised Zoom calls for David to interview all those intending to come – 21 in all – a mixture of staff, trustees and other supporters and former staff/trustees. Not everyone was able to come to the event in the end, but from the interviews it emerged that there was a consensus in favour of “hunkering down” for a couple of years and consolidating.

This was not what Sir Malcolm had hoped for from the day but in light of his plan to stand down as Chairman, the sale of Northwood Schools (and thus potential changes to the funding model), civil war in Ethiopia and the departure of the Country Director due to Covid-19, there was a widespread feeling that the waters needed to calm and direct contact to be reestablished before embarking on any new projects.

This was not a unanimous view, however, so David had to steer a careful path through the day, making sure to hear every opinion while aiming towards a conclusion that most attendees would get behind. Having interview everyone prior to the Vision Day, David was able to share the range of individual perspectives in a way that gave everybody due regard, and opened up the discussion in a positive and inclusive way.

Ultimately, David was able to take a ‘non-binding straw poll’ on the vision and mission for NAEF over the next five to seven years.

Ann-Marie’s hope for the day was to come away with a consensus on next steps for the charity and she was pleased that the majority voted to push ahead with her vision. The voting was very clear on what most people thought was the way forward and the way the charity should expand. There was full agreement on the first three steps:

1.  Consolidate – make sure the school is running in a really efficient way.

2.  Ensure continuing education to 18.

3.  Explore building our own secondary school.

NAEF now has a written agreement from a secondary school to take in the first cohort through to 18 and Ann-Marie and her team now have the sizeable job of securing sponsorship to make sure these children continue to get educated.

Ann-Marie came out of the next Board meeting with a to do list to get sign-off for the fees that the secondary school is asking for, restructure the UK team, and work very closely with the school headmaster, who is also now the country director.

“We have to look at our sponsorship model,” said Ann-Marie, “because at the moment it’s solely driven by parents at the school. We need to look at our funding model and employ someone with experience in interacting with corporates. Making the ask was a big thing from David’s talk. That’s something we need to address down the line.”

A new chairman, Nick Wilcock, was appointed to take over from Sir Malcolm as Chairman from the end of August. Step 3 – building a secondary school – will be addressed a few years down the line, when the charity has a UK team with the capacity to do that.

Consultant’s insight:
The transition from founders-led to a new leadership team is always a challenging transition, but Sir Malcolm and Lady Colquhoun wisely saw this Strategy Day as an opportunity to consult widely – with people who had been involved in the charity from the start, as well as with people who were going to take over the reins. It was important (and wholly appropriate) to reflect on the huge success of establishing a primary school in Ethiopia from scratch and building it up to 500 pupils, but also to take a realistic view of the weaknesses as well as strengths of the present model. Whilst it would have been nice to have come up with an exciting new vision for a new project, in my view the group was wise to opt for consolidation first – whilst by no means shutting the door on new initiatives in the future.

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