Winding Up Fabulously - Part 1 ( In which I cannot sleep, we make the decision to wind up and I discover a dirty secret. . .)
Now, as the Executive Director of a small charity you spend a lot of nights lying awake worrying, but over the last six months I’ve been doing that more than usual. During our cash flow crisis in 2008/9 I made a series of case study videos for NCVO. In one of those I said that sometimes the best option for an organisation is in fact to close. But I thought I was giving that advice to other organisations. . .
The decision to wind up wasn’t an easy one to make and it wasn’t made quickly. My own words haunted me over months of restless nights. So one night I finally dared to ask myself ‘Is WebPlay really still the only organisation that can deliver the work?’ (Blasphemy!) And a very clear voice, not particularly welcome at the time, said ‘No, it’s not’. The next morning, I called my Trustees.
WebPlay has always been a proactive organisation and never afraid of change. We pioneered linking technology and young people’s theatre in 1999. We were early adopters of mixed economies and generating earned income to lessen grant dependency. We took one of the first Venturesome loans (and paid it back in full). Funnily enough, our success at generating earned income is why we were also an early adopter of the recession! Our earned income stream from schools faltered quickly when the recession began and we had to completely restructure the organisation and create a new business model to survive. That was two years ago and our new business model not only succeeded in keeping us going but also resulted in us creating some of our most impressive and inspiring projects.
Then why are we making the decision to wind up now – when we aren’t out of money and we’ve always managed to find our way through tight spots before?
It takes a lot of physical and mental energy to keep a small charity running in a tough and changing environment. And the lines can become easily blurred between fighting the good fight to keep the work going and fighting it to keep the organisation going. This is especially so when you add in the reality of staff losing their jobs (including you), organisational reputation and history and the fear of failure. But in the end, the work is the most important thing and you have to stay focused on that.
We realised that keeping the organisation going wasn’t the only way to keep the work going. When we began, no one else was doing what we do. We were still on dial-up modems for goodness sake! The world has moved on. Theatre companies are now eager to work with technology and the resources and models we have created have helped develop their capacity to do so. Others can take the baton and build on what we’ve begun. If we transfer our projects into other organisations, we can add value for them and ensure a legacy for the work. In a time of limited resources, this kind of practical thinking is important, because there is only so much money to go around. It needs to be invested in the most strategic and effective ways possible.
The trustees and I began to look at winding up not as a failure, but as a positive and grown up choice which would let the work develop and add value to the sector as a whole. And by making a pro-active decision before we were out of money, we would have control of the process and could ensure it was done with integrity and in a way that celebrated what we had achieved as an organisation. We started to view winding up as the last stage in the organisation’s life and when we looked at it that way we realised that we needed to treat it with the same amount of care and attention as when we were building it up. We wanted to wind up fabulously.
So I started looking for help and guidance. And I hit a wall. I called the Charity Commission. I called NCVO. Nobody had any productive answers to the most practical questions. What do we need to do for the work? The people and funders? The organisation? It seems like winding up is a big dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about. This of course leaves us struggling in the dark and feeling quite alone. We decided to use our own situation as an opportunity to open the door a little on the process so that others could look in. So we’ll be publishing regular blogs about it on the NCVO website between now and November. Maybe it will help other organisations who are exploring options for the future. It won’t be definitive, but it will be an honest look at our journey. This isn’t an easy process. In addition to being WebPlay’s Executive Director, I’m also its founder. There’s the technical, practical and logistical side to the process (what do I do with all this STUFF anyway?), and then there’s the emotional side of it (LOTS of conflicting feelings). We’ll share it all. And hopefully it will be of some use to others. Stay tuned. . .
Sydney ThornburyWebPlay is an arts education charity creating projects for schools that combine technology and theatre in order to raise children’s aspirations, creativity, skills and cross-cultural understanding. Since 2000, WebPlay has worked with over 30,000 young people from across the UK, USA, India and China.
Sydney Thornbury is WebPlay’s founder and Executive Director. Read an exclusive interview with her in Engage, NCVO's online membership magazine.
Winding up fabulously
Sydney Thornbury, the Executive Director of the small charity Webplay, documents the process of winding up her charity so that people in similar situation can learn from her experiences.