Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Martina Milburn identifies strategies to enable charities to survive, thrive and achieve their purpose.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

A charity's success is judged ultimately by its shareholders - those it seeks to help. But if charities want to win the survival game, they must be well-equipped on all fronts. For the Prince's Trust, this means keeping pace with the changing needs of young people, our supporters and donors. It's a constant challenge. As a mother of three, I know that the pressure of bringing up children can be one of life's most difficult tests. But when you add into the mix the responsibility of supporting 40,000 disadvantaged young people every year, the task can be demanding and uplifting in equal measure.

Popular opinion holds that most of this country's lost generation are troubled wasters who don't want to work and are happy to live off benefits. Far from it. Many of the young people I meet want to work but lack the self-belief and practical skills to get that first chance. Every day, we help 100 young people develop the skills and confidence to get a job. Helping a youth emerge from depression and addiction into a self- assured person who has started an apprenticeship or even a business is inspiring.

But this is not just about philanthropy; it's good business sense. The dramatic growth in developing economies is transforming the global market, making educational achievement a key indicator of our young people. Keeping pace with these changes will become increasingly important if we are to remain competitive. We have a huge pool of young people who want a job but lack the skills to get one. The trick is bridging that divide. Almost one in five young people in this country are out of work or training - that's more than 1.2 million potential workers who could transform our economy's productivity.

This isn't only a challenge for charities. There is an individual and collective responsibility for business, government and society to solve the growing problem of disaffected youth. Part of my job is to create the rationale for helping troubled young people guilty of anti-social behaviour. I believe we should, because they're our future - and because for every ex-offender we support, we create fewer victims. This in turn creates safer communities and helps the economy.

To get these young people started requires vision and money. Most people are surprised to learn that with a host of A-list celebrities on our side, it's incredibly difficult to raise the £1m a week we need. We're not fundraising for animals, children or cancer though, but for a much- maligned group of hoodies and youths. Our funders are, of necessity, diverse. From trusts and foundations to overseas-challenge events, we chase them all. Private-sector CSR policies can open the door to new pots of cash, but any arrangement must tie directly into the company's core business needs, particularly around its staff and volunteering.

In a world where brand is king, charities need to find innovative ways of vying for the public's attention in an increasingly noisy market. Our image needs to be reputable and attractive to a broad base of people: from the business world and future employers to young people, policy-makers, celebrity ambassadors and volunteers.

I believe that you should first set your strategy and then find your funding. Schemes shouldn't be tweaked in the pursuit of the elusive public-sector pound. Funding can be pulled at any time, so understand the customer's needs - and don't underestimate how long it takes to get the money. It's a slog. As one government funding stream opens, another shuts; national contracts become regional and local agreements. A three-year national partnership becomes a yearly battle to win over hundreds of local personalities.

The reality is that inconsistency in income means inconsistency in delivery. I have had letters from young people who cannot start their own business because they live in the wrong postcode. Money often goes to the most deprived wards, but this leaves others without the support they need. We have had to stop certain programmes because there isn't the money to pay for them, even though they get fantastic results. Long-term planning is difficult and staff have to cope with a lack of job security.

So as a leader, there's a constant challenge to achieve the most possible with limited resources. Before joining the Prince's Trust, I ran Children In Need at the BBC, where I had the backing of a large organisation with all the infrastructure in place. But at the Trust you stand or fall on your own. You have to find a way of paying for things like IT while ensuring that the bulk of our funding goes to young people, not administration.

Running the Trust also requires diplomacy and an understanding of everyone's view, from our founder, HRH the Prince of Wales, to the young man who has just finished his third sentence with no-one to meet him at the prison gate. The only way to achieve this is to lead by example. Listen to the voice of the young person as attentively as that of our future king and ensure the organisation does the same.

And while you are busy saving the world, remember that no-one is bigger than the cause we work so hard to support. We are merely stewards for a short time.

CV: Martina Milburn is chief executive of youth charity the Prince's Trust. She joined the Trust in 2004, after having been chief executive of the BBC Children in Need Appeal since 2000 and a member of the BBC's corporate social responsibility board. Milburn began her career as a journalist, before running spinal injury charity Aspire.

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