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Breathing Space

2008 Saving The Charity

It was late November 2008 and I’d seen an advert for a business show in Walsall at the football ground. Because the parking is easy I decided to wander down there and have a look. I wandered past stands where auditors and solicitors and other advisers were trying to persuade anyone who passed to hire them. It  was of no interest but towards the end of the room there was a man with a table and little stand describing himself as from a  Charity called Breathing Space. I got chatting to the guy, who called himself Mike and he explained that Breathing Space was a charity to help people start up in business – aimed at the self employed. I was looking for something to get involved in and this seemed an ideal fit. I said I’d be happy to help and was keen to move forward. He suggested that we meet the next day at their premises in able Wall Street.

When I got there Mike greeted me and took me into a room where he explained that the charity was really in dire straits and unless somebody did something it was going to go bust that day. I said I was happy to help and asked how much was needed immediately to pay the bills. He said they needed hundred thousand pounds but instantly required I think it was £44,000. I said okay and wrote a cheque. I guess Mike must have thought he was dreaming - things like that just don’t happen. From my point of view I thought it was an excellent charity, where I had some expertise and make a major contribution.

I met the trustees and said that I was keen to make the charity succeeded and I started to work with them. It turned out that a few years previously they had won a grant from the EU. This had resulted in a big expansion and a lot of work whilst they produced educational materials and researched barriers to employment. This would have been great but there were commercially naive and because of the way the grant was structured they had incurred huge expenses and ended up paying an IT company many times over. All of the staff that have been involved in the project had now left and some five or six other people were left to run the show. Mike joined the organisation after the project and was now passionate about rebuilding the charity

The website was not functioning. Students had tried to write the site as part of a course. They had chosen Joomla! to carry out the work. I said that I would get the website up and running and over the course of the next few weeks I learned Joomla! and put the website into order. In a theme which was to become familiar I tried to get the staff to take over running the website but failed and ended up doing myself. The same thing happened when we agreed that a prospectus should be produced and I ended up doing it. The problem is when that happens you get the product but without any staff buy in.

I have found this problem throughout my working career. I don’t know how to overcome it. If you want to achieve something and can’t engage staff in the delivery do you simply not do it - or do you find an alternative method perhaps by hiring an outside agency to deliver. If you do the former then nothing gets done if you do the latter than there is no buy in. Staff feel able to ignore or criticise the achievement.

New Premises

So I was involved with Breathing Space pumping money in and ensuring its survival. One of its problems was the premises that it operated from were underneath a Methodist Hall. There are paying far too much in rental. I have some premises in Green Lane which were far more suitable and everyone agreed it would be great for them to move premises. I enquired about the length of lease on the Hall and was told that the lease has expired. We then make plans and moved out to Green Lane when it transpired that the lease have just been renewed and Breathing Space had a big bill to pay. I more or less took over the negotiations and successfully argued that by scaffolding over the building at the Hall the landlord had prevented access to our premises and under those circumstances the lease was void. Without me they simply paid up.

Their accounts were in a mess and they couldn’t keep books properly so I asked my accountant Angela to ensure that we produced accurate accounts and that she did.

Self Employment Course

The backbone of the charities activities was the provision of a self employment course. This course should have explained to prospective clients the various requirements of self-employment. The Course had been running back-to-back several years and a lot of people have gone through it. The underlying problem was lack was lack of rigour. The clients turned up but didn’t pretty much it will and the standard of the lectures was very variable. Having said that a number of clients went away with a great deal of enthusiasm to set up their business. The course ran for 12 weeks and was structured in in order to allow clients to carry on claiming benefits and attend to the needs of children.

I was still looking around the commercial opportunities and I had long wanted to set up a training company. Mike said that he to saw that as being an opportunity and we could set it up as the commercial wing of breathing space. That sounded like a great idea and we reorganised breathing space to run without Mike. Mike and I meanwhile started a company called bringing enterprise to life. Mike moved into larger offices in green Lane. Bringing Enterprise to Life as a whole story on its own and you will be able to read it here.

Photocopier

I have long had an aversion to photocopier sales people. They will say anything to get a sale. Photocopying salesmen had produced a proposal for Breathing Space showing that a new machine would not only give better performance but would save the money. On that basis without any further reference the Breathing Space staff had ordered this photocopier. I found out about it when it appeared and I asked to see the lease and proposal. The proposal showed savings based on a copy cost of 10p a copy (against a real current cost of maybe 2p)  which was clearly a nonsense. I called the photocopying salesmen in and  by the time he arrived I was hungry for a fight. I must admit that I was very aggressive and it ended up with the salesmen agreeing to take the machine away. It was not my finest hour with me yelling at the salesmen the top of my voice bright red in the face and  barging him physically out of the room. Fortunately the red mist does not descend very often and I can control its descent. Since this was in full view of the staff I think it became something of a legendary event.

Paris

I was seeking ways of making the charity successful when we heard of a cooperative venture in Paris that was setting up businesses very successfully. So three of us went over to Paris to investigate how could do it in the UK. The model was funded by EU money and involved paying staff to work in the cooperative whilst they set up their own business and then taking their business out of the Co-op. I couldn’t see and still can’t how without a continual flow of government money how that could work. However we had a nice meal and a trip round Paris was interesting. The three of us who went fell asleep on the plane on the way back.

Funds Needed
We needed to get new funds in to make the venture a success. I tried without success to persuade the existing staff to structure to apply for grants. As ever they had meetings but nothing seemed to get done. Eventually the trustees agreed that we’d hire a new member of staff in order to apply for and win grants. We spent thousand pounds running adverts for the staff and eventually hired someone. After several months of trying to persuade the new member of staff to deliver it became apparent that this was also a failure and she left. I had to clean her computer afterwards and whilst I found some personal documents there was little to indicate that any work had been done.

I felt that it was important that on the website and in the subsequent prospectus that we told some of the success stories of our clients. So I asked the staff to produce these success stories. When nothing happened over several months I was told the problem was that people who were successful in business did not want to give any information about their success. So I asked for a list of people who had set up successfully and I would approach them. Unbelievably I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to see the list because of data protection. Once we disposed of this problem it became apparent that there really wasn’t a list because presumably the hadn’t really been any success stories.

Meanwhile the self employment course continued to run – but was funded less and less by Walsall Council. There were no other funds coming in and the staff agreed to alter their working terms. There were some other courses arranged and delivered but because by now I was unwilling to put more funds in except to save the charity on a couple of urgent occasions the financial crisis deepened.

The End
Following the previous photocopier purchase debacle the trustees made it clear that no capital expenditure should be undertaken without trustee agreement. Damn me therefore when a year or so later another photocopier appeared. At least they had bought it but we were desperate for cash.  Their logic in spending what little we had on the photocopier defeated me. The logic was that since we could only claim a proportion of our expenditure from Walsall Council on a project if we didn’t maximise our expenditure we didn’t maximise our claim. So we spent £2000 on a photocopier in order to reclaim £1600. If the trustees were unable to impose such small controls I felt there was little hope and no way forward and this was the incident from me but sealed the fate of the charity.

I tried to resign at this point but given that the other trustees also would have resigned I chose to soldier on.

The staff generally resented any idea of commerciality which I regarded as a given in order to help the charity survive. There was no understanding of a P&L – there was only cash – you either had some or you didn’t in their view.

Given that there was no significant sources of cash except Walsall Council and me and Walsall council drastically reduced their funding I felt there was nothing else to be done. We still had a substantial debt from the original EU funding debacle and that made gaining further funding an impossibility.  So it was that the trustees, following professional advice, agreed to put the Charity into voluntary liquidation in April 2012. It was a sad end to a charity which before the EU grant had been a thriving part of the community.

I’m sorry that I failed in reviving it, that the staff ending up regarding me badly and the £120K I pumped in to try to save the day was wasted.



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