Lessons in Leadership: Building Change Trust
In this series, we are speaking to members about their experience of foundation leadership.
The second article in this series comes from Nigel McKinney, Director of Operations at Building Change Trust.
This series first appeared in December 2017’s Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here.
I had no expectations of my role here as it all came as a bit of a surprise to me. Since the early 2000s I had worked for the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, and was managing part of the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland – the Community Foundation was a delivery body. That programme came to an end at Christmas in 2008. When I came back from my holidays in January, I was handed four files and asked by our then Chief Executive, Avila Kilmurray, to go and do the best possible job as I could as Director of Operations of the Building Change Trust (BCT).
BCT is a £10 million, 10-year spend down charitable trust with an endowment from Big Lottery Fund. Its management, administration, strategy development, and communications are all contracted back to the community foundation. It was a massive transition, and took me some time to adjust. I had been managing 20 people at the peace programme, which was a very dynamic, fast-paced environment, very bureaucratic, based on procedures and processes, with little time for reflection or strategic thinking. Overnight, I became the sole employee for a brand new trust fund. There was a business plan setting out the different elements of governance and so on, but it didn’t really deal with what the organisation was going to actually do over the entire 10 years. So the job was to think about the issues that were then important in the voluntary and community sector. Suddenly I was going out visiting people and going to events – for the first while I thought ‘this isn’t work’! I spent a lot of time researching and trying to think about areas the trust should focus on and how I could support the board of directors.
I needed to engage with the sector in more than a superficial way, finding out what issues were important to them, and where they thought there was a need for action to support their ongoing development. Having worked in the voluntary sector since the mid-1990s, both in community development and on the funder side, as well as three years on the peace programme, I had a good understanding of the diversity of the sector in Northern Ireland. I knew lots of people and organisations, and was familiar with many of the issues. I like to think I have good facilitation skills, which have helped in building relationships. I was also doing the finances and was responsible for the governance and legal administration, but I had handled those functions before in previous paid and voluntary roles.
What was totally new to me was the communications side of things, especially the website. I did struggle with that. I think we could have been more thoughtful about our marketing and communications at the outset, particularly in respect to managing the expectations of others. With the peace programme, you didn’t need to be – we were overwhelmed with applications. Eventually BCT developed a communications strategy and a marketing strategy, employed a Communications Officer and developed the website, but we should have done it sooner. Interestingly, our final piece of work before we wrap up in December 2018 is to find out what issues are important to the sector now and for the future, but this time we are using our marketing and communications channels and tools to help. Back in 2009 we did consultations, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking a picture of the consultation, looking for news angles, writing it up and circulating on Twitter and more widely, like I do now.
I also wish I had felt able to push back on the level of evaluation, which started even before we had really done any work! It felt like we were not getting the space and opportunity to get on with it without the weight of scrutiny and expectations. It taught me the need for patience and for longer-term strategic thinking.
The new board was very recently formed, and mostly unknown to each other and to me, so relationship building probably took a couple of years. The Chair was very supportive, and he and the board were prepared to be flexible. For example, the business plan included a grant to Charity Bank of £2 million to develop its lending in Northern Ireland, but the board cut it to £1 million, agreeing to use the other £1 million to support other social finance developments in Northern Ireland that were totally unknown at that stage. The lesson I took from that is that a plan is just a plan, and if it needs to be changed according to circumstances, then the brave decision is to change it. On that occasion it was the right thing to do, and we have been able to use that extra £1 million creatively to promote social finance in Northern Ireland.
One of my best decisions was to support the board to commission a service to support collaboration in Northern Ireland, delivered by a consortium. It ran from 2010 to 2016 and I am very proud that the service supported thousands of individuals and hundreds of meaningful collaborations between organisations and has informed future policy development in this area.
Director of Operations
Building Change Trust