Leading a Cross Border Charity

Guest blog from Martin Crewe, Director, Barnardo’s Scotland



A small group of Scottish directors of UK charities met this week to discuss ‘the challenges and opportunities of leading a cross border charity’.  The discussions ranged wide and covered both the rational and the more emotive – a ‘head and heart’ approach so characteristic of the charity sector.


A major theme on the rational side of things concerned governance – how can UK charities most effectively listen and act upon the experience from their Scottish operations?  It was agreed that formal mechanisms for feeding into the UK Board are desirable but it is also about ensuring that the wider benefits of being ‘4 nation’ charities are appreciated.


This theme of understanding the distinctiveness of Scotland came through again and again in the discussions - our different systems of government, charity regulation, law, education, health, social care… We also recognised the increasing divergence of political opinion with the ‘mid-point’ of Scottish politics being well to the left of that in England.


Other ‘rational’ topics included fundraising, influencing, disclosure checking and financial accounting.  However, we also considered the personal impact of managing the Scottish dimension of UK activities. My co-speaker Jane-Claire Judson (CEO of Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland) summed this up well when she described the ‘triple identity’ required.  The Scottish director must be extremely corporate, ultra professional and comprehensively aware of everything that is going on in Scotland.  Not surprisingly, this can be quite exhausting.


Another interesting observation from Jane-Claire was around the expected role for Scottish representatives to be more outspoken and challenging than their English counterparts.  This links to Debra Meyerson’s idea of ‘tempered radicals’ who are both part of the culture but at the same time trying to change the system. 


On a more light hearted note, we also found time to share some great anecdotes including the London-based charity that held a conference in the north – in Milton Keynes!  We agreed that wearing a tartan skirt to a meeting in London really shouldn’t be interpreted as a ‘Braveheart’ gesture and being told “you Scots just want to be different” is not a particularly constructive approach.


I was struck by just how diverse UK charities are in their structures and approaches to working in Scotland - it would be interesting to do more research on this.  We were unanimous that we want to bring the benefits that UK-wide charities can provide to Scotland but in a way that is respectful and responsive to our national setting.


With a second independence referendum potentially imminent, there will be a need for cool heads if we are to engage constructively with English colleagues through the process.  It wasn’t that easy at times with the first referendum and we have to recognise that politics generally has become more divisive since then.


Two hours of discussion was barely enough to scratch the surface of the various issues so we are certainly looking to do more.  If there are other ACOSVO members from UK charities who would like to get involved then we would love to hear from you!