front of a house, showing a wooden door, a lamp and a window to its right. There are parts of trees showing on the top right and left of the photo

How I learned about property and charity leadership

Antonia Swinson, Ethical Property Foundation CEO, shares her top property tips for charity CEOs.

Some Charity CEOs are born to lead, others work their way up in a sensible and purposeful manner. While others, if they are REALLY foolhardy like me…move into charity management in plain sight as a CEO. On 5 September 2005 to be precise.

I had enjoyed a long and successful career as a business columnist and writer on national and Scottish newspapers and this certainly gave me the cheek, chutzpah and transferable skills to read people, absorb and analyse information, think strategically, ask daft questions,  smell trouble and present to boards. But it was a very long hard slog, to master all the other skills I needed to lead national not-for-profit organisations – three to date. Have I made mistakes? How long have you got!

In my current role, running the Ethical Property Foundation – the UK’s property advice charity for the voluntary sector – my big learning curve has been understanding the staggering impact on staff, volunteers and service users of a charity’s premises, whether owned or rented.  Too often busy CEOs fail to notice that their familiar building has the capacity to scupper their work, just as comprehensively as the bolshiest employee, dopiest Chair or meanest funder.

On my 1st day in the job back in February 2014, the phone rang, and I heard a startled voice. “It’s OK. Chunks of stucco have smashed onto the pavement, but no one was killed”. And so, began a long and sorry saga of trustees sued and a charity, which had served its community for 40 years, closing its doors.

The following week a social care charity rang at 4.45pm to say that bailiffs were due at 9am the following day and could we help? Former trustees had signed a full repairing lease and the council landlord had just slapped a 110K dilapidations bill in for immediate payment. This was no charity minnow either: it had contracts with 8 councils

I soon realised that my colleagues were solid gold and after a rough, tough career writing about commercial property, I found myself in a dark and often challenging parallel universe full of stressed and panicking people. A council was pushing a small community group to take on a full repairing lease on a Georgian house falling into a river while a rape victims’ charity was being pressured to take on a dingy basement.

With finite resources and unsustainable demand, the sector needed tough love fast and so we shifted focus to prevention and property education. The Ethical Property Foundation now provides free advice and education plus affordable consultancy to around 350 – 400 charities a year.

Remember: everything about your building tells your stakeholders about your own leadership.  So now, with over five mostly happy and certainly eventful years, at the helm at EPF, here are my top 9 property tips for fellow small charity CEOs.

  1. Take a friend on a tour around your office who has never visited before. Look through their eyes. How does it strike you? What does it say about your charity’s culture and cause?
  2. Make sure you have a property maintenance line in your budget and make sure it is spent.
  3. Put together a premises risk register and make sure it is an item on the board agenda.
  4. Appoint a trustee with property responsibility – just as you have a treasurer for the money.
  5. Keep copies of your lease and put the break dates in your diary.
  6. If your office manager or finance manager looks after the property, get them some basic training. (EPF runs free workshops every year as well as property health checks.)
  7. If you need to move, future proof your charity. Remember Cloud IT and high transport costs are driving greater flexi working, so will you need less space?
  8. Are bins emptied, wires tucked away, flowers and plants tended, windows and ledges cleaned?
  9. Property maintenance does not need to be expensive, just consistent. Remember that falling stucco? It only fell off because no one cleaned the gutters.

Photo by Hardik Pandya on Unsplash (front of a house, showing a wooden door, a lamp and a window to its right. There are parts of trees showing on the top right and left of the photo)

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