Being entrepreneurial: two local infrastructure case studies

Laura Smith coordinated the core work of the Sustainable Funding Project (enabling voluntary organisations to implement a sustainable income strategy). Laura no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

The ‘Becoming More Entrepreneurial’ masterclass was inspiring, but importantly left participants with both confidence and realistic aspirations.

At the beginning of the session, participants listed their main challenges to being more entrepreneurial, which broadly fell into four categories:

  • Changing organisational culture and ensuring staff and trustees have skills and willingness to be ‘entrepreneurial’
  • Charging for services that have previously been free
  • Staff and management capacity, time and confidence in a new approach
  • Understanding and finding the market for services that can generate income

Sajid Hashmi, CEO of VAST, offered candid advice from his experience of overhauling his organisation and ending up with an almost completely different set of staff than he started with. Some of VAST’s achievements as a social business include:

  • Moving from core costs being 100% grant funded, to covering almost half through sales
  • Reducing overall income to a manageable and realistic sum, as grant subsidies were decreasing
  • Charging – testing their market and creating a clear pricing policy with a strict set of rules. For example, not setting up new projects unless they generate 10% profit that can be reinvested into the organisation
  • Offering a brokerage service for local businesses who want to support local charities.

This shift involved difficult and sensitive decision-making, and took several years – a fact which both our speakers pointed out. Changing your funding model does not happen overnight; your board and senior management need to be in it for the long haul. You also need to be able to manage growth and understand how much income or how many staff you can handle efficiently.

Brian Horner, CEO of Voluntary Norfolk was open and honest about both their successes and failures, giving real examples of how strategic decisions have played out in reality. Key activities so far include:

  • Deliberate focus on securing appropriate funding for discrete projects rather than just increasing core funding
  • Understanding return on investment of resources – for example, saying no to ChangeUp
  • Ensuring staff and the Board understood risks of both change and inaction
  • Identifying the right connections to make, including productive partnerships with the private sector

Participants told us they felt reassured and confident at the end of the session, and were pleased to have had some frank advice from people who had been there, done that.

I hope you can join us at one of the future sessions.

Laura Smith

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