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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

Insights on better endings

The Decelerator offers information, tools and hands-on support for better organisational endings: anticipating and designing closures, mergers, CEO transitions, programming ends, and all sorts of endings as just part of the everyday life of organisations and inevitable cycles of change in civil society.

We’re on a 10 year journey to shift mindsets and money so that individuals, organisations, sectors and movements consider possible endings as regularly, and readily, as growth in their ambitious, courageous, pursuit of impact for the people and communities they serve.

We receive an average of one Endings Hotline call every other day with callers wanting to discuss a range of endings they are considering or planning. Amongst these have been enquiries about closures, a couple of mergers, a handful of CEO / founder successions and a few general ‘something doesn’t feel right but I don’t know where to begin’ conversations.

The scale and range of organisations seeking our support range from large, national organisations who are ‘household names’ through to middle-sized organisations and micro-organisations with few or no staff members. These conversations offer callers (often CEOs or Chairs, sometimes others) a cost-free, dedicated space to consider their options, as well as signposting to further support if they have need, time or money for it. We’re capturing key data to start to map out the trends and patterns, and whilst we are still at an early point in our journey, here are ten things we’re noticing (from a much longer list!).

1. ‘We’ve tried everything to make this work, we’re out of options’. It’s an obvious one to start with but many nonprofits reliant on government funding or philanthropic grants are struggling to meet fundraising targets, especially after the hardship of the past three years. These funding challenges are pushing some to consider closure or merger due to difficulties meeting financial targets, exacerbated by rising costs, and because they don’t have any more ways to innovate their existing ideas or present new ones to satisfy demands from funders for new work, or follow-on funding.

2. It’s rarely just financial issues that are raising questions about the need for an ending. Financial concerns aren’t the only reason for potential endings; wider strains on organisational strength and resilience including challenges hiring new staff at all levels, embedded conflict within teams or the organisation more broadly, and other wider cultural and relational challenges are all playing their part.

3. Paralysing conflict seems to be on the rise. Rising conflicts and lack of good communication among staff and trustees is hindering decision-making. Staff and trustees are struggling to manage disagreements or conflict well. One of the underlying causes of this appears to be the shortcomings of digital communication for nuanced discussions with no easy answers, and longer-term shifts around forming and maintaining relationships in hybrid or remote working arrangements.

4. Leadership succession seems to be harder than ever before. Succession planning for leaders, especially CEOs, Founders and Chairs, is increasingly difficult due to fewer applicants and longer recruitment periods, posing risks to organisational stability and confidence. This is partly because these people are often the lead fundraisers / business development leads and the transfer of power and relationships that come with succession creates risks to the bottom line. We have had a handful of organisations ask for support planning for leadership succession with 3+ year timeframes - we think this is going to be increasingly necessary should the underlying factors driving succession challenges continue.

5. Fragile governance is leading to poor decisions which can create fast spirals of crisis towards endings. This trend is marked by lack of understanding of the governance role of trustees, and by inadequate relationships within a trustee board meaning trustees aren’t familiar enough with one another to have important conversations or raise doubts. We are noticing that decisions aren’t being taken with adequate information, or early enough to put plans in place, which may be a result of inexperience or too many pressures on trustees’ time.

6. Insolvency presents dire outcomes for those of us concerned with good closures and a thriving, healthy sector. It deprives organisations, sectors, and funders of valuable learning opportunities, erodes opportunities for lasting organisational legacies, and leaves staff and trustees feeling ground down. Discussions we’ve had with nonprofit insolvency experts indicate an alarming rise in demand for their services. The Decelerator aims to support leaders and organisations to avoid insolvency at all costs by advocating for well-planned and well-funded closures focused on creating a legacy and treating all involved with as much respect as time and money allow.

7. A craving for new legal and ownership structures in organisations, and some faltering efforts to make the transitions. Questions about whether the charity structure enables the change that organisations seek are not new. But considering wider culture shifts in organisations and experiments with flat organisational structures, there seems to be a renewed interest in alternative legal and ownership structures. But organisations are challenged when exploring alternative legal structures and managing these transitions effectively while delivering their ongoing programmes of work and maintaining a focus on their beneficiaries.

8. And what about funders? Funders are increasingly acknowledging the significance of endings and their part in shaping positive or negative outcomes. Adequate funding is crucial for impactful endings of all kinds, and we assist organisations to advocate for this from their existing funders. Presently, only a few funders are receptive, but there's a promising growing trend where some funders are thinking ‘upstream’ and evaluating how their grant cycles impact project endings and wider lifecycles in organisations. Overall, while recognition is shifting, lasting change will take time, and will need robust and visionary leadership across the funding ecosystem.

9. Skilled professionals who can offer hands-on support with endings do exist, but they can be hard to find and fund from within existing budgets. Good endings need skilled, compassionate, high-quality professional support. We’re working with practitioners who can support with better endings, from lawyers to facilitators to conflict mediators to communicators to strategists, to grow our ‘Endings Directory’. This will make it straightforward for organisations needing support to find it and demonstrate the value of this work to funders and budget holders.

10. People are coming to us earlier in their journey towards a possible ending than they were when we started the hotline in 2021. In the early days of offering free, one-off coaching for people considering endings most calls would be from organisations who had essentially run out of road: they’d tried all options and were facing a fairly fast wind down over a few months, or even insolvency. We still get our fair share of these enquiries, but increasingly we’re finding people turning to us in the earlier, anticipation phase. Perhaps a Founder is concerned that the board isn't fully aware of the risk of succession planning and they’re coming to us asking what can be done on a 3 year time horizon to shift this dynamic. Perhaps a Chair is aware that the end of a long-term core-costs grant in 3 year’s time presents a significant opportunity for the trustees to consider what might need to come to an end. We know that good endings are possible with enough time and money - so this sort of early action is just the sort of work we hope we can continue to do more of in the months ahead.

Got you thinking? 

If you’re keen to join the conversation on better endings more broadly, we’d love you to join us at our Better Endings webinar on 23 April.

Last modified on 25 March 2024