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Planning a strong future
An important community service organisation in Melbourne’s west is well placed to secure its long-term future thanks partly to advice from the Small Business Mentoring Service.
Based in Deer Park, Community West Neighbourhood House provides valuable services to the western suburbs including English classes, free legal advice and facilitating the handover of children to separated parents after access visits.
Community West has served the local community for 30 years and has 52 staff.
Its Board provides stewardship for its State, Commonwealth and Local Government funded programs. They include the Adult Community Education Program, Children's Contact Service, Brimbank Melton Community Legal Centre, Family Violence Program and Volunteer Program.
When Community West Executive Officer Robyn Shilton planned to leave, she wanted to ensure the Board was well placed to move forward. So she used SBMS mentoring sessions to ensure her business plan ticked all the right boxes.
All community agencies are dealing with an evolving not-for-profit sector and the resulting changes to government funding and the way organisations operate. Robyn was conscious of this and the need for organisations large and small to adapt.
Community West is a successful and important facility with its community contacts and service integration. But Robyn wanted to ensure its Board also had a sound plan for the future.
“The external landscape is changing and the organisation had to think even more innovatively about how it positioned itself in the community service sector,” she says.
Robyn was matched with mentor Jamie Pearce under an Office of Community Services program offering four free SBMS sessions. Jamie also offered another session for free.
SBMS is a non-government non-profit organisation of volunteer expert mentors who give their time and experience to help small business. It is supported by Small Business Victoria, which refers clients to it.
Jamie had some years of experience as a social worker and community worker before a long career as a management consultant with two international consultancies. Robyn saw him five times over a number of months and they continue to stay in touch.
They discussed the fact that Community West faced increasingly tight government funding of some services, competition for adult literacy education, growing legal costs and family services challenges.
Jamie then offered advice on how to maintain an optimistic outlook while strengthening the organisation and guaranteeing its future. Options included possible partnerships and mergers with other groups, reassessing which services to focus on and ensuring the resources and expertise to cope with an evolving community sector.
“We SWOTed and explored radical strategic options,” Jamie says. “This included the possibilities for major investment, increasing promotion and course diversification in adult education.” They also discussed restructuring legal services and rationalising others.
Jamie says Robyn had overseen a period of growth, increasing reputation and recognised success. Her main motivation in seeing him was to ensure that before she moved on the Community West Board had the best possible blue print for the future.
“I helped Robyn prepare a final report to her Board pointing out strategic challenges and opportunities for the organisation in the long term,” he says. “Of course this required a big jump in thinking by a Board made up of classically community concerned and competent citizens.”
Jamie says all community organisations need to review their business plans. “To survive there has to be rationalisation of some sort or certainly optimal efficiencies,” he says.
Robyn, who has a background in education and marketing and was with Community West for eight years, says Jamie helped ensure that her business plan covered all possible bases and could actually work.
The result was a plan that had Robyn’s stamp “all over it” but also the objective eye of an experienced mentor. Robyn presented it before she left, which was a huge achievement and one she was determined to achieve as the old business plan had expired.
“Professionally I felt that it was my responsibility,” she says. “I was absolutely compelled to have that completed before I exited. I was satisified that I left a really strong legacy … the document reflects the strategic perspective that I wanted to convey…but the Board will have their own views on whether they go with it.”
Jamie says Robyn is a talented administrator and did a terrific job. He says the plan is a strong document and rightly considers the changing landscape and likely developments in the sector. “She’s fantastic,” he says. “I think she’s one of the most competent people in the whole welfare sector.”
Robyn is grateful for Jamie’s expert advice, which gave her the confidence to produce a comprehensive and dynamic document. She says Jamie was also very supportive of her as an invidivudal professional.
“He was very positive in his feedback about my skillset,” she says. “Jamie has impressive experience and was very generous in sharing his wisdom. He really was a very solid sounding board and helped me drill into the realities facing our organisation and the context of the sector. With Jamie’s insights and encouragement I was able to express the strategies that will strengthen Community West’s position into the future.”
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