Lessons in Leadership: Building Communities Trust

In this series, we are speaking to members about their experience of foundation leadership.

The fifth article in this series comes from Chris Johnes, Chief Executive of Building Communities Trust.

This series first appeared in December 2017’s Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here

When I joined the trust in the summer of 2015, there was literally an empty office, a board and a governing document. We had to recruit all the staff and set up almost all the systems from scratch – that took so much time and energy I didn’t have room for preconceptions! But it wasn’t too unfamiliar – my previous role running the Communities First Support Network gave me a good grounding in the types of work and I knew many of the areas and people we are working with now.

For some external people it was tempting to think this would be another version of Communities First, but the trustees and the funder – Big Lottery Fund – wanted the trust to try new things, which I welcomed. I’ve enjoyed being surprised by what local people in the communities we support feel is important, and how well thought-through it is. A frequent criticism of residents by the public sector is that people will waste money, but our experience so far is that people look very hard at how they spend the money, and demand that their peers do the same. It has been very enjoyable to learn what works – the flexibility and freedom I have in this role to support people to do unusual things has been liberating.

An early challenge was the Welsh Government closing down its communities programme. Now some local people are looking to us for the resources the government was providing before – which we obviously can’t provide entirely – and we have had to roll out our programme much faster than we planned in some communities. Given our ethos – to fund what communities want to do – if people apply to us for projects to replace government funding, we might challenge it if we feel it’s unwise or unsustainable, but we wouldn’t stop it happening.

Another challenge is the amount of political in-fighting in a few of the communities we work in, which has been disruptive and made the programme very difficult to deliver. In dealing with these sorts of issues there are certain principles we follow – not allowing very loud individuals to have disproportionate influence, showing patience and making it clear that we are there for the long-term, and ensuring that people in the hierarchy are willing to trust colleagues on the frontline to make their own decisions.

Providing support to colleagues doing challenging work in local communities requires quite acute judgment calls. It can be difficult because they sometimes want you to come in and provide extra support, but if that support is too emphatic, it can undermine them in the longer term. I think we are all a bit more certain about when that support is appropriate and when it’s not now, having had almost two years’ experience. We talk issues through and share the dilemmas much more explicitly before the event, and work out at what level any intervention should be.

Looking back, it would have been helpful to understand the endowment more. I have had to spend a lot of time to educate myself, as has our Finance Manager, but thankfully there are other people who can advise. We identified it early on as a gap in skills on the board, and gave a lot of priority to recruiting trustees with that knowledge. Another unknown was having a protector on our board from the Big Lottery Fund, but he has been a great help and source of valuable advice.

Brexit remains an ongoing issue because of the financial uncertainties it brings. In the short term, our endowment hasn’t done too badly because of the way it is managed, but it is a constant source of uncertainty. And unlike most trusts and foundations, we can’t control our spending very easily – the pattern of expenditure across the areas we are working on is so erratic. With another year’s experience we will be able to make better estimates but they will remain estimates. It is problematic to set a fixed budget each year because if the bids we receive are for a higher amount, it is very difficult to forgo our principles and not pay out that money. We could easily get into a situation where we have very clear requests, with clear community endorsement, that could cause problems for our financial model. We have to manage our investments so we don’t put ourselves in the position where we have to sell off shares rapidly for short-term cashflow.

We have a very clear remit to get involved in the policy decisions around work on communities, particularly at the devolved Welsh level. Last year was the first of the programme, so we had very little evidence of how it worked, yet the government was making a once-in-10-year policy change. It was a calculated risk, but I am glad we decided to engage in that debate. In fact, we played a very prominent role, hosting a successful conference and contributing some of the most influential policy papers. Conversely, we have made some bad decisions in striking the balance between our role as a facilitator and our role as a supporter. At times we have over-facilitated and been in danger of taking the lead in something, rather than the community taking the lead.

If I were advising myself now as I started this job, I would say communicate more. Never underestimate the number of times you have to say the same thing to the same people, and recognise the huge variety of ways in which people get their information.

There are many things you have to recognise you can’t control, but you absolutely can control your recruitment processes, and doing that properly really pays off. We spent a lot of time and money testing a wide range of skills, and as a result have got really good people. There are eight of us now and we have good team dynamics and everyone believes in the ethos of the organisation.

Chris Johnes
Chief Executive
Building Communities Trust


Other articles in this series:

Lessons in Leadership: Bupa UK Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Building Change Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Joseph Levy Foundation

Lessons in Leadership: Cattanach Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Nationwide Foundation

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