There was a very grim prediction towards the end of last year when the Charities Aid Foundation warned that as many as one in six charities believe they may close in the coming year while nearly half of all charities said they will be forced to dip into their reserves. One in three fear that they will have to cut services.
BHT is amongst the one in three. Cuts to legal aid funding will result in a reduced service with a corresponding reduction in the number of cases of homelessness that we will be able to prevent.
An earlier survey by the Charities Aid Foundation and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations reported that charitable donations in the United Kingdom had dropped by one fifth over the last year. As a result, two in five charities fear they may have to close if the economic situation does not improve. Nearly three quarters believe that they will be unable to fulfil their goals while one in four have cut staff.
So what should charities be doing if they begin to run into trouble. A few years ago I was heavily criticised for taking action to control BHT’s costs when we changed our terms and conditions of employment and reduce salaries for three quarters of our staff. It was probably the most unpleasant thing I have ever done but it was absolutely necessary. As a result, BHT is not in the precarious position that many of our partner organisations are in, although cash is tight and we are far from complacent about the challenges we are facing.
This uncertain future does not just affect small, local charities, but also large ones. In November we saw a large national charity, People Can, sadly fold as a result of a black hole in their pension pot. It did amazing work and had an inspirational Chief Executive in Maff Potts, and its sad demise is in no way a reflection of its work or of Maff himself.
Others who have been successful in securing contracts from the NHS and local government are being left with large residual liabilities as contracts are decommissioned rather than recommissioned. Fortunately, taking on large pension liabilities is not something BHT has ever exposed itself to.
It is inevitable that some charities will fold when the economic climate is as difficult as it is today. Trustees have a particular responsibility at this time to ensure that, in the event of services being closed or the organisation folding, that the best possible planning is in place to protect and transfer services. I read an article over Christmas by the always interesting Craig Dearden-Phillips, the managing director of Stepping Out. In the very readable Third Sector magazine, he wrote that there are five possible responses by trustees. I paraphrase:
- deny that there is a problem;
- admit there is a problem and use your reserves in the hope that “something turns up”.
- accepted the charity is probably doomed so begin speaking to funders and potential merger partners
- be told that it is a bit late for that
- receive a bill that the charity cannot pay and being forced to put the organisation into receivership.
Craig says that it is “far better to decide calmly and rationally to wind up before the water starts slopping over the sides and everyone is in a flap. Remember that a messy end to a charity can be a lot more harmful than ordinary business liquidation. As trustees, part of your job is to be captains of the ship – to get your arms around the problem quickly and assess the best course of action so that the fate of your particular vessel can be sorted out in a sane and rational way, even if that course of action is to abandon ship”.
There is another reason why trustees need to remain on top of the situation: to protect their own position. Trustees must be proactive if they are to minimise the risk of personal liability. There are several basic things the trustees should do, particularly if there is likely to be cash flow problems:
- obtain clear and reliable financial information, ensuring that cash flow forecasts are realistic and regular;
- ensure that an overdraft facility is in place;
- establish whether there is scope to bring forward the timing of grant receipts;
- explore other sources of income; and
- contact the Charity Commission to see whether they will agree to restricted funds being used for general purposes.
At the first sign of problems, act. The corner is unlikely to be turned in the foreseeable future, calm waters aren’t ahead, and “something” is not likely to turn up.