John Whatmore - 17.05.2012
I spent a day last week on teleconferences with a number of charities, trying to help them to articulate a big problem of theirs - which they had agreed to submit to a 'Troubleshooter Day' - to be run by a big telecommunications corporate as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility work.
As one might expect, the cuts feature big among these problems - how to find funds to compensate for them, often by earnings from social enterprises. Communications was another big topic - how to keep in touch with geographically widespread locations and with volunteers with their individualistic contributions.
They had found it extraordinarily difficult to express their problem on paper - its nature, its dimensions, its causes, its implications etc. They seemed either to be too close to it to be able to articulate it successfully or else too baffled by it.
A small group of us had been put together by VolunteeringEngland, the charity whose mission is to encourage volunteering, that runs England's Volunteer Centres. We sat round a speakerphone talking to two or three people at a time from each of the five charities, trying to get them to elucidate their issue to make it easier for the corporate's Troubleshooter teams to come up with some useful ideas to resolve them.
All of them had indeed identified a persistent and important problem, and one that could be successfully tackled. But not all of them had found the nub of their problem: one was in reality a deeper and more general problem - not its huge and increasing deficit, but its very governance; another was more specific - not about buying new computers but about managing its use of existing communications networks.
What was common to all of these problems was that their problem-owners lacked contacts with people who had had experience of successfully dealing with this kind of problem. When we asked them if they could name anyone from whom they could usefully beg, borrow or steal, we drew a complete blank.
Organising, shaping and running this Troubleshooting Day is proving to be very challenging: so many points of contact, so many different interests, such uncertain commitments by participants, such unclear issues, that it feels like flying though the clouds without any glimpse of the ground!
One of the charities gave us a useful clue. It had had a period of very valuable ongoing contact with individuals in this corporate, and we began to wonder whether a valuable model might consist in attaching mentors to problem-owners for the duration of their problem (a time-scale some boards have sometimes adopted), eg. an experienced change leader for the charity with the enormous deficit; a communications manager for the charity with the communications issues.
After a careful matching process and a suitable introduction, their modus operandi might consist in regular phone calls (once a week or once a month) and occasional meetings - over a pre-determined period (say six months, with the possibility of a short extension). If the mentor was part of a group of mentors, this would also make it possible to draw easily on related experience and on a wider range of contacts, as well as making it easier to change the primary mentor (if that were necessary.)
This role would be a very valuable and manageable way in which they could deploy their experience to make a practical contribution to charities.