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News & Views from Firm Beliefs

We will be posting articles on a regular basis - so check back regularily for updates.

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Charity mergers and trustees - a summer of love and despair

Author: Sara Dixon
Posted: 31st of October, 2011

Having spent the summer and early autumn dealing with charity mergers, law firm
mergers, joint ventures between profits and not for profits - in fact, a summer
spent bringing perfect strangers together with a view to a better future... - we at Firm
Beliefs cannot but ponder on the role that charity trustees play in this brave
new world of new relationships.

That role varies tremendously.  That is the problem. 

So do attitudes.  Also the problem.   

We are finding that there are rarely cases where both (or more) sets of trustees clearly understand their own role and attitudes, let alone the others' role,  and the process as a whole is often delayed by a lack of clarity around the role and the attitudes of one or more of the trustee boards.

Regardless of charity sector (dogs, carers, international aid), regardless of size (small charity where trustees ARE the day to day workers;  large international charity where trustees rarely meet the employees), regardless of experience of trustees (from the trustee who set up the charity many years ago to the seemingly ubiquitous ‘I donated stacks of cash to this charity and I am a hedge fund manager/banker/business owner...') - there are two clear issues that any merger team must be clear about up front:

1.      What role has the board of X charity played so far in its development? 

2.      What attitude has the board of X charity taken insofar as leading the charity forward thus far?

Because unless these are clear up front, both within X charity itself AND understood by the merging organisation, chaos, delay, uncertainty and even, sadly, failed merger will ensue.

Why the previous role is important:

Has the role hitherto included working with the staff? Charity X Board may or may not have developed a close working relationship with the management/administrative team of Charity X before the merger process.  Certainly they will need to do in the feasibility
process.  Add to this Charity Y who may also be trying to forge a similar working relationship in whether deciding whether to merge, and you have at least 4 groups who have never worked together before, trying to do so. 

Add into this the new Merger Steering Group once things get going and you add yet another group of folk into the mix - reps from the Trustee Board of X and of Y; plus key staff from the Exec teams of X and Y.  Whilst still trying to report back to the Boards of X and Y.  With all of the cultural and managerial and operational differences in language and approach that such mergers bring. 

So an understanding of what role each has
played hitherto is helpful in trying to decide the roles going forward and putting
into place systems and support mechanisms to make sure that all the different
groups work effectively together.

Why previous attitudes are important:

In particular, attitude to change.  For many trustees, their approach to change
has been something tested, or not, in their ‘day jobs'.  Even if they have gone through tremendous changes in their working lives, they may or may not have been ultimately
responsible for delivering on that change.  This may have affected the attitude that the
trustee board as a whole has shown in terms of change for the charity for which
they are ultimately responsible - have they been change averse?  Have they been change aware? 

And for many, regardless of experience in their own working lives, that may not translate into attitude to change as they merge their charity with another.  I think we have all come across the ‘In my commercial role, I have been merged with/lost my job/managed a merger numerous times and this merger for this charity is no different'.  Sadly at the moment,
that attitude prevails all too often.  No merger is ever the same as another - so attitude to change needs to show an element of humility as well as adaptability to the requirements of this particular change.

There are of course many other issues which affect trustees and their role and attitude during a merger - and many trustee boards we have worked with have shown exemplary approaches to both their role and their attitude.  Indeed, the fact that trustees appoint interim independent chairs of merger steering groups to ensure that the merger, not just the interests of the charities, stay at the forefront of the process, regardless of past experience, is to be commended. 

So, trustees need to be clear, up front, about the role they have played hitherto, the attitudes they have shown towards change hitherto - that way they can enquire similarly about the other trustee board/s in the merger.  Once the differences/similarities are ironed
out, the merger process proper can begin.  The courtship that includes a full and frank assessment of one's self, as well as the other, does tend to lead to better outcomes after all.  Even if it is, 'no thanks'.  Better know that sooner rather than later.

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'Stakeholders - If you don't really look at them, you won't survive'

Author: Sara Dixon
Posted: 2nd of March, 2015

So said one of the clients on our webinar last week.

This stakeholder focused webinar is probably the one which, so far, revealed the biggest 'shock to the system' in most of our clients' organisations. At least as far as those who took part are concerned. And our own experiences with clients who were not able to make the webinar this time reflect that as well.

The question for discussion was 'how have our primary stakeholders changed?'.  We interpreted that to mean not just how their identities and categories have changed, but also how the stakeholders' strategies and organisations themselves have changed. And most importantly, how has their ability to make us successful/shut us down changed?

Clients revealed the shock that they had received when they actually sat down, before the Webinar, to consider the question. And we revealed some of the issues discovered when conducting work with clients.

The three main areas of 'shock' were:


1.  the power of the suppliers - particularly in those parts of our clients' sectors where suppliers held the key to successful identification and delivery of key services.  Their power has, across the board, increased compared to, say, 5 years ago.  This picture is even more stark when considering international activities undertaken by our clients.  Suppliers' skills, knowledge and influence are changing rapidly, just as ours are. We can either take advantage of that in different ways OR we can become subject to their own fortunes, good and bad.


2. the impact of one type of client, customer, donor or beneficiary to stop further expansion. For example, the number of lawyers losing work from one client because they have begun to act for another client. Not in terms of traditional 'conflict' but in terms of 'you act for them, they have a bad reputation for x, y, z activities, we cannot allow ourselves to be advised by the same lawyers as them'.  As far as charities are concerned, some donors are no longer donating funds, in favour instead of becoming equity investors in social enterprises who have similar impact goals.  (This latter example is not unfamiliar to us, having undertaken a 3 way project between ex-donor, now equity investor, social enterprise and charity).


3. the impact of society's perception.  The biggest change in impact, it was generally felt, coming from stakeholders has come from 'society generally'.  One law firm described the 'scathing reproach' felt by some of their clients and staff for taking part in a recent Magna Carta event in London - which they were told felt more like 'let's sell our services abroad and forget about human rights and access to justice if it makes our international trade more difficult'.  Possibly an unfair  comment and who is to say who 'society' is but it certainly made the firm think clearly about how their firm is perceived by all elements of society.   The charity who is losing donations because of how much they pay their Senior Management Team said something similar - 'we don't know who society is but it feels like we are on the receiving end of a backlash against us by wide sections of the UK'.


There were many other examples of stakeholder shifts - too many for this blog.  All I would say is - have a look at your own main stakeholders and consider those who are not currently your primary ones - could they become so; and of those who are - how have their patterns of influence and authority changed.  And more significantly how might they change in the future.


Worth a thought?  Our Webinar participants certainly thought so.

What keeps our clients awake?

Category: News about you,Strategic development
Author: Sara Dixon
Posted: 04th of February, 2015

Crying kids,  barking dogs,  noisy traffic.  Yes, all these were mentioned of course at our first Client Webinar of 2015.  But the focus was very much about the strategic considerations that our client CEOs and Senior Management Team participants are still thinking about at 2 o'clock in the morning.

The Client Webinars that we hold give those who have responsibilities for the future of our client organisations the chance to get together and talk about issues that they probably have little opportunity to discuss with members of their own organisations.  It Is Lonely At The Top is a phrase we hear frequently.

So - what were the biggest talking points when they got together:

1.  Am I physically up to this job any more?  Long hours,  the excitement and stress - both postiive and negative...

2. How can I deal with the growing complexities of being in business or serving our beneficiaries?

3. Am I interested in this job any more?

4. When should I stand back and let others take the reins?

5. Does the world still need my organisation and what it does?  (Readers of the blog will remember a number of discussions that we have had around this.)

6. How big should we grow before we risk losing the essence of what we have been and still want to be?

7.  Which are the best markets for the long run even if they are short-term risky?

8.When is it the time to call time on what we do?

There were more but these were the main ones.  An interesting mix of self-focus and bigger picture. There is no doubt that CEOs and Senior Managers have much on their minds that, as they indicated, they often cannot discuss within their own organisations.

We are happy that our Webinars provide that external peer discussion.  It requires trust and the correct combination of folk.  We often repeat them for those who could not make the first one, or who wish to follow up in a structured webinar.  Many though go on to have conversations informally having made contact via our Webinars.

11 more to go this year. It is our pleasure to provide those with the responsibiity for their organisations the opportunity to share their worries, dreams and thoughts.  For indeed It Is Lonely At The Top. 

Client Webinars 2015

Author: Sara Dixon
Posted: 06th of January, 2015

Clients took part in our webinars last year. In a very positive and often amusing way! 

There is something about bringing the CEO of a charity into conversation with the marketing director of a traditional law firm with the finance director of a social enterprise and with the major shareholder of legal services ABS.

That something is indefinable at times but, to quote one of those who took part, 'where and when else do you get the chance to talk with others who have done, are doing or are about to do something that you either have come across yourself or, better still, never would even have thought of doing?'

Often led by clients, rather than us, the discussions are broad ranging and make a difference to the way their organisations are run and,  more importantly, how clients feel about wanting to be involved in the running.

Our new webinar topics, and dates, are available on the Resources page of our website now.  As always, we try to adjust the time to suit as many as possible. However, plan for a 3-4.30pm session unless stated otherwise.



It all goes wonderfully weird when our clients get-together.

Category: News about you
Author: Sara Dixon
Posted: 20th of June, 2014

When our clients get together, that which we expect to happen never does!  Whether that is because our expectations are off-beam or whether we just happen to have quirkily different clients from the norm, I am not sure. I suspect it is the latter and I am sure they won’t mind me making that observation!

For all our existing clients, we run a series of (free) webinars.  This year they are concentrating on the benefits and risks of increasingly important ways of crossing sectors/organisations to merge, joint venture or collaborate informally. 

So far we have covered:

  • the cross-sector working environment, 
  • latest techniques for conducting feasibility studies into collaboration/merger activities, 
  • the changing implications of ‘our walk-away position’,
  • and most recently we looked at the type of measures that organisations will focus on post-merger but which really need to be embedded into the project right from the start of the early ‘shall we have go together’ discussions.   

We have run a number of them twice already and will continue to repeat them as clients wish.

The conversations and discussions have been sparky, informative, thoughtful, operational and strategic.  As you would expect.  So some serious and sensible outcomes.

What has struck me though are the less ‘focused’ outcomes.  These reflect the collaborative and thoughtful nature of our clients.  And their very ‘human’ nature.  All too often, the CEOs and senior management teams of organisations have to maintain a ‘specific face or front’.  During our webinars, they get a chance to show frailties, concerns, their ‘I am not so sure’ face. 

And this makes them human,  the others on the webinar empathise and recognise their own situations.  So it leads to relationship building.

If I were to choose the most valuable outcomes, on a human level, from these webinars I would mention:

  1. Two CEOs had been at school together!  They had lost touch. Suddenly these very wise sensible individuals went back to their ‘long itchy socks and shorts’ days and the conversation flowed.  The rest of us listened as the realisation that they had once known each other and had a shared early history dawned on them.  It set the webinar off on a very informal, friendly and in parts amusing path. 
  2. One Senior Manager was discussing the fact that a much valued team member simply couldn’t cope with the changing nature of the organisation despite bringing very specific and needed skills set to the organisation.  A CEO from another organisation, with a culture which sounded more suited to the struggling team member, offered to meet the team member.  Within 2 months, the team member is now valued, and happier, in the CEO’s organisation.  A smooth transition and everybody happier.
  3. 3 firms have become involved in a joint venture in South America.  One CEO had family contacts there who could support ‘on the ground’,  one charity was seeking to develop one of its services in the region, and a law firm could provide some low price legal support via one of its member organisations in the relevant country.  We foresee a trip to South America soon by all concerned!  Collaborative working at its best.
  4. One Senior Management Team member broke her leg.  She could not easily travel on public transport into London and their offices in Manchester.  A relative of one CEO made the journey regularly into London from the same home village and another organisation had a team member who travelled every day to Manchester.  So – travel sorted!
  5. And perhaps the most bizarre of all (but most useful for me) was the ‘chicken advice’ at the beginning of one webinar.  One of my hens was unwell and spent a few days in the dog crate in my office…  Hearing the sound of a certain amount of chicken clucking, I  had to reveal all and move the laptop towards said chicken so that all could see her…  Suddenly a few ‘chicken fanciers’ revealed themselves from amongst the CEOs and Senior Management folk in on the webinar and advice was given and experiences shared.  Weird!  Bizarre!  Brilliant.

So there you have it.  This is what happens when Firm Beliefs clients get together on ‘sensible’ seminars.  Super clients.  Good learning and development and mutual support.  Unexpected outcomes.  It is what collaboration is all about.

About Carers Trust Business Mentoring programme

Author: Sara Dixon
Posted: 24th of March, 2014

Mentors for the ADVANCE Network Development Programme



Carers Trust is looking for volunteers to join their small team of high calibre mentors to lead individual or groups of independent charitable organisations through a development programme over the next 1-2 years. 

Here are the details: 

We are developing a highly skilled team to mentor Network Partners who form the Carers Trust network across the UK, to support them in growing the services they offer to carers and the people they care for.  Our aim is to ensure that Network Partners are in the best possible position to survive and grow in challenging local and fiscal environments.

These are the prerequisite qualities for this crucial role:-

  • a track record of achieving service growth through dynamic, senior leadership,
  • an ability to inspire confidence in the people who work with them,
  • an ability to spearhead service development through strategic thinking and to deliver coherent business plans – to enable people identify not only the what but the how that fits their local situations. 

Mentors already represent the private, public and not for profit sectors. 


Carers Trust is now the largest charitable organisation within the UK that is specifically concerned with addressing the needs of carers.  Together with a network of 161 individual charities, we provide support, information, advice and services for people caring for a family member or friend.

Across the UK, together we make a difference to carers lives by

  • reaching carers of all ages and with a range of caring responsibilities
  • helping carers gain access to local services or delivering them ourselves,
  • making carers views heard by opinion formers and professionals.

Together we help carers connect with everyone and everything that can make a difference to their lives.

By working closely with Network Partners, we aim to ensure that one million carers benefit from the provision of comprehensive high quality services by 2018.  We seek to achieve this by working with Network Partners to implement a strategy for growth and excellence, ensuring that there are no geographical gaps in service provision and that all services are delivered to the same high quality standards across the UK.

To encourage and support Network Partners to actively seek new opportunities and develop services, we are setting up a volunteer business mentor programme to support local leaders and their teams to:

ü  Focus on building sustainable organisations, which generate surplus for charitable use;

ü  Support the delivery of seamless integrated services across the UK that focus on the best outcomes for carers and those they care for;

ü  Align national and local strategies to support the push for growth in services and therefore improved outcomes for carers; and

ü  Encourage and support the development of partnership working between Network Partners.

We see the role of the volunteer mentor as a means of bringing different perspectives and ideas to the way that we approach and think about leadership and management of organisations and how they deliver and develop services for the benefit of carers.


Mentor Role and Responsibilities

This is a role that requires mentors to support organisations and people to help drive change at two levels:

  1.  At a local level with Network Partners, to support the review and development of their strategies to ‘survive and thrive’ within an environment challenged by austerity measures. 

Discussions will be undertaken on a confidential basis with either an individual partner or a group of partners who are looking to work in partnership in their local area.  The output of these discussions could be (revised) robust business and action plans, and / or a range of working arrangements which take account of the challenges and opportunities present within each local scenario; and  

  1. At a national level, be part of an overall mentor team with Carers Trust’s UK network support team to help us to identify and prioritise where to focus development resource according to need.

We are looking for senior leaders, experienced professional leaders and managers (and organisations) who can commit time across a 12 month period.  You and the organisation will get the best out of the experience if you are able to volunteer and commit to around 8-10 days across a 12 month period to support this programme in its first year.

Ideally, we would look to match you with Network Partners within a geographical area of your choice (i.e. near home and / or work) across the UK, however, this will depend on the take up from our Network Partners and therefore, a degree of flexibility and ability to travel is also desirable.  Carers Trust will cover all travel costs involved with this volunteering opportunity.

Should you be unable to provide this amount of time but still wish to support the programme, we are also interested to hear from people who can share their specialist business skills in workshops, working alongside mentors who have been assigned to a partner organisation or organisations. 

Skills and experience

 A track record/employment history that demonstrates:

  • Proven leadership, management and / or consulting experience in supporting organisations and teams to develop and grow and have an impact in the sector that they serve;
  • Ability to share skills and knowledge, relevant to a diverse situations and personal styles;
  • Experience of working in a service environment with a strong customer service and quality ethos. This could be in the public, voluntary or private sectors;
  • Strong relationship management skills to be able to inspire, support and challenge the people you are working with;
  • Development and delivery of robust and realistic business plans;
  • Ability to identify and assess evidence to inform and support the development and delivery of business plans;
  • Experience of “troubleshooting” and managing key issues as and when they arise; and
  • Time – mentors recruited on a voluntary basis need to have the time to support Network Partners to develop lasting mentor / mentee relationships to create and deliver on their development goals.

Personal attributes

  • Able to make a difference through others by inspiring people to realise their potential and to feel empowered to drive the changes required in their particular context;
  • Empathetic and self-aware, providing friendly, unbiased support and guidance;
  • Act as a ‘critical friend’ by providing honest and constructive feedback;
  • Bring an outside perspective and expertise relevant to the situation that you are working in by sharing your own experiences of both failures and successes and facilitate decision making by suggesting alternative ideas;
  • Listen, confidentially, to the issues that are worrying people and be a sounding board for ideas; and
  • Be self-aware, open to ideas and able to acknowledge when there is a need to seek advice and information from others.


For further information, please contact Rosemary Hawkins, Head of Programmes & QA at Carers Trust on and / or send your cv along with a covering letter setting out why you are interested in becoming a mentor with Carers Trust.