Fit for purpose: becoming a sustainable social venture

Peter Walter is a trustee of charity OutdoorLads, which has been in operation since 2008. Here, he explores some challenging conditions that beset a social venture during growth and what to do about them.

OutdoorLads organises ways for its 14,000 members to get together in the great outdoors. In doing so it helps tackle the social isolation many gay, bi and trans men feel, doing its bit to combat the dramatically higher rates of mental illness and suicide these men face versus the male heterosexual population.

The journey to OutdoorLads’ current successful sustainable state has, however, not been easy. While the conditions diagnosed below will not surprise anyone involved in growing a charity, tackling them while in the thick of it is tough. 


Condition: frazzled board syndrome 

Symptoms: The Board of Trustees does everything; board meetings are tortuous wading-through-treacle affairs; more time is spent agreeing what to do than doing anything; guilty feelings and resentment prevail. 

Diagnosis: A dysfunctional organisational structure. 

Dr Pete’s treatment: “Becoming a registered charity eight years ago gave OutdoorLads the basic structure it has today but to move from a board meddling in everything to one with a light hand on the strategic tiller took more, including: making roles and responsibilities explicit; bringing in paid staff to cover business-critical functions; and creating a clear chain of responsibility for volunteers.” 


Condition: organisational disorientation 

Symptoms: Non-core activities for non-core audiences pop up; well meaning people with new ideas that are strategically off-course absorb time and energy; the question, ‘Why are we busting our arses doing this?’ hangs in the air. 

Diagnosis: A vague, poorly understood organisational purpose. 

Dr Pete’s treatment: “The old chair of Stonewall Ben Summerskill said, ‘be clear what you do and stick to it’. It’s easy, particularly when chasing funding, to lose sight of the one thing that matters most – your purpose. While it’s got to be clearly articulated and easy to remember that alone is not enough and so we communicate ours relentlessly to ensure its something everyone knows and everyone believes in always.”


Condition: a culture of mistrust

Symptoms: Volunteers and staff are hard to recruit yet once recruited treated as a problem; potentially value-adding ideas can’t survive being shot down in flames the minute they’re aired; everyone is micromanaging everyone and everything. 

Diagnosis: Lack of trust. 

Dr Pete’s treatment: “Sorting out structure, roles and purpose are critical but there must be a cultural shift too. At OutdoorLads we went from a ‘check everything’ culture to a more devolved reality where the board’s role is to back up and support volunteers, and everyone has the space and autonomy to get on with their work. Of course mistakes are made but its rare and the quid pro quo is we all feel we make a difference, which is motivating. A shift like this takes time but people can change and those who can’t adapt tend to choose to move on.”


Condition: commercial denial 

Symptoms: Making money is seen as dirty and unethical; money is spent with way too little or way too much thought and process; important financial decisions are made that even a seven year old might question.  

Diagnosis: A commercial mind-set is missing in the organisational mix. 

Dr Pete’s treatment: “The notion that doing something worthwhile and making money are diametrically opposed runs deep and takes time to address but you have to tackle it! We constantly communicate the link between making money and achieving our charitable aims. We ensure the basic offer is low-cost or no-cost to remain inclusive but are not afraid to make money where there’s money to be made. Critically, we also brought into OutdoorLads people who not only understand dealing with money but know how to make money, former entrepreneurs.”


Condition: everything is a joyless slog 

Symptoms: Volunteers grumble, “It’s not like it used to be around here” and don’t hang around for long; the work never seems to end, the fun never seems to begin; energy gets used up but rarely gets replenished. 

Diagnosis: The need to ‘feel good’ not just ‘do good’ has been forgotten.

Dr Pete’s treatment: “Recognition and reward at OutdoorLads works at two levels. In the day-to-day we have lots of small structures to say ‘thank you’ to volunteers who choose to give their time and need to know they’re appreciated. We’re also good at celebrating together. Each year we conduct research to understand our impact on members’ lives and produce an epic video with tear jerking testimonials to illustrate this. It’s become a tradition to show it after the AGM before it goes on our website and is one of the biggest highs in the OutdoorLads’ year.” 

Photo credit: Keit Trysh/Unsplash