Guest blog: A Pillar of its Community
3 August 2021
Ray Lock – chief executive of Forces in Mind Trust till 2021 – reflects on how he has used ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative and some of the key lessons from his experience at the Trust.
I’ve always been attracted to cross-cutting themes. They’re like motorways - they enable people to make journeys safely and efficiently. You’re all heading the same way, but you can start (and finish) wherever you want, and you can go at the speed at which you’re happiest. Everyone collaborates within a structure of formal rules, and informal practices. A busy motorway in full flow is a thing of beauty - I’d actually prefer everyone to be cycling, but perhaps I can leave that for another day.
In December last year, ACF published its report on cross-cutting themes as part of its Stronger Foundations initiative, and it coincided with my planning to leave Forces in Mind Trust as its founding chief executive. It would certainly have been useful to have had such a report back in 2012, but I do think that being an Armed Forces charity, we can offer the wider sector some interesting and I hope useful observations on our journey as I reflect back over eight years.
Stronger Foundations identifies 40 pillars of, by its own admission, ambitious practice. For a small Trust such as ours with 10 employees and a £3 million annual project funding target, work on the pillars has inevitably required prioritisation of effort, and at times our Trustees have understandably approached this with a slightly different perspective. Nonetheless, we do share a view on the five cross-cutting themes.
Coming from a military background, it’s not surprising that I completely endorse the view that aligning mission with ‘values, resources and behaviours’ is the foremost principle. When I taught at the Ministry of Defence’s Academy, we would devote many hours to understanding how to craft good mission statements, and how they would be used (or misused). I was surprised to arrive at Forces in Mind Trust, my first foray into charity governance, to discover that our charitable objects were vast, and we had a strapline; but we lacked anything remotely mission like. Yet we had already started awarding grants because, as a National Lottery funded spend-out trust, there was an overriding imperative to do just that - spend.
It is a privileged position to be in of course, to have your own resources and a great flexibility to apply them in whatever way you choose. But time spent understanding context and environment is more important than funding, at least initially. Once spent, that money can never be recovered. There’s a great Army adage ‘time on reconnaissance is rarely wasted’ and sometimes you just have to remind impatient founders and trustees of that.
By limiting our funding to gaining a better understanding of context and environment, and a couple of carefully constructed full board and staff awaydays held against a backdrop of some of our potentially six million beneficiaries (eg Chelsea pensioners or Stoll residents), we settled on: ‘To enable successful and sustainable transition (of ex-Service personnel and their families from military to civilian life).’
This simple statement unlocked the development of our strategy (which describes the how), encouraged us into articulating a collective vision, and ultimately led us to create our theory of change, aided for a small fee by NPC. If I’d properly understood then what I know now, I think I could have sped our development up by at least a couple of years.
Having settled on a strategy of ‘generating evidence and influencing policy makers and service providers’, many of our projects over the years have started off with research to provide knowledge, which then leads to bringing about change. The first part requires substantial funding of expert and relatively costly bodies, and the second considerable staff investment and extensive and energetic networks. This all takes time; so-called Impact Reports are often simply reports on activity, and we were at least honest enough to call them that during our early years. The two elements though are symbiotic. Without credible evidence and a reputation to match, we would be of no interest to the policy network. And without a policy network, our evidence would be no more than an exclamation mark in a sidebar of shame. I have watched with admiration how sister Trusts built policy and communications staff substantially quicker than we did, where our focus was more aligned with being a grant giver than a change maker. Once again, some of the guiding words on ACF’s knowledge cross-cutting theme would have been invaluable eight years ago.
I would say this, but I do think we’re now at a point where we have the right staff balance, the best mix of Trustees and the space to properly understand the evidence and what it means for the changes we should seek. A very wise former Trustee warned me that if you are configured as a grant giver, you will think and behave like one; I fear that will always remain on our collective CV, but by recognising it we can at least mitigate its effect.
Power and accountability
Have you ever heard a collective gasp on Zoom? I have - when I was speaking to a fundraising conference recently and I opined that funders do actually know what they want to achieve, and sometimes are quite smart about how to do it. We might be right. The narrative that there’s an imbalance of power, which lies with funders whereas knowledge rests in the funded, is far too generalized. I am proud of our work, and take every opportunity to speak about it. It’s a very human reaction to defend your product when criticised, and in truth we have struggled to find ways of being more accountable beyond the regulatory framework (which is where inevitably we focus our limited capacity). Twitter is hopeless for this, lived experience can help a little but risks losing sight of the forest for the trees, and asking grant holders is akin to scoring your own child in a beautiful baby contest. Perhaps the most effective accountability has come from sceptical colleagues within the Armed Forces charities sector, including some of our own Trustees, demonstrating once again the importance of being well connected.
Having attended eight ACF conferences during my time in office, I don’t think I’ve met a single delegate who hasn’t spoken humbly about their organisation, or shown compassion for those they’re seeking to help. In Stronger Foundations, there’s a call to use our power responsibly, collectively, inclusively and carefully. I paraphrase, but for me these are some of key tenets of how we work. In truth though, we wield very little power to effect systemic change. Some of our successes have come simply through convening - our impact:biscuit ratio must be one of the highest in the business. Dining with the big beasts, the Legions, the SSAFAs, the Help for Heroes, has never felt quite equal; but it’s essential to have such a network so that the evidence-based strategic and operational changes we commend are successfully applied by those in a position to do so. I recognise that I write from the perspective of a policy focused trust rather than a service provider funder, but there is read across.
If John Donne were to write about civil society today, he would doubtless reflect that no trust is an island, as well as how relevant his 400-year old ideas on connection and mutuality still are. And yet every charity has its own individuality which as funders it is not our place to change. One of our most recent projects tried to bring three similar service providers together; it failed simply because each had its own ethos and values, which whilst comparable, proved not to be compatible (in the eyes of the Trustees). Like many of my colleagues, I have been privileged to be given time to connect with such a wide range of people and organisations. In my sub-sector though, I don’t see that same connectivity at Board level and as that is where the big strategic choices are made, that’s where I would target improvements.
ACF’s wonderful chief executive Carol Mack suggests in her cross-cutting foreword that climate change is the unspoken thread, and I can only agree. Leaving my pro-cycling bias aside, our latest report ‘Lifting Our Sights’ takes a strategic look out to the end of the decade to identify trends, and how they might affect the Armed Forces Community. Ranging from data and automation to incorrect public perceptions, the trends were all and substantially affected by climate change. If you really want to learn anything from Forces in Mind Trust, and I hope that this slight confection here has tempted you, then I would urge you to look at Lifting Our Sights, which offers something for everyone involved in modern civil society. It was the work of many, and I am proud that my final contribution to the Trust is a work of foresight, substance and considerable utility.
Ray Lock CBE was chief executive of Forces in Mind Trust from 2012 until June 2021. Lifting Our Sights can be downloaded here.