Vicky, our Global Safeguarding Lead is former CEO and Founder of Glad’s House who merged with Chance for Childhood in March. Recent findings from The Good Merger Index show that there is still a large amount of fear surrounding mergers within the charity sector. This prevents leaders from viewing mergers as strategic and positive opportunities. Here Vicky talks openly about her thoughts, feelings and reasons behind the decision to shine a light on the real world experience of being a Founder and CEO going through a merger and the positive impact it can have:
In May 2020 we announced that Glad’s House UK had merged with Chance for Childhood. This was not a decision made in response to COVID-19, but a result of discussions we’d started in mid-2019. The merger created a new role for me as Global Safeguarding Lead at Chance for Childhood and Glad’s House became a strategic partner in Kenya, giving them more security than they have ever had. Looking back on the past 5 years there are things I would have done differently, but rather than regretting some of my actions, I hope others can learn from my reflections outlined below; especially small organisations.
When Glad’s House was founded in 2006, we established entities in Kenya and the UK side by side. It was always with the vision that the UK office would cease to exist at some point. We didn’t know how or when, but we hoped one day Glad’s House Kenya would be a self-sufficient organisation without the need for a UK office. Whilst we are delighted that our recent merger has gone one step towards realising the autonomy of Glad’s House Kenya, they do still very much rely on funding from the UK.
Our initial goal was that our local social enterprises would fund the majority of the work being delivered in Kenya. We made significant progress towards this goal and at one point 60% of Glad’s House Kenya’s operational costs were funded by social enterprises. However, a series of external factors meant the demise of our enterprise income and a return to the more traditional approach of raising funds in the UK. It was in this pivotal moment that we missed the opportunity to be creative about the role that Glad’s House UK could play in supporting the work in Kenya. We were too focused on expansion to pause, reflect, consolidate and then move forward. By reverting to a traditional UK fundraising model that really didn’t suit my skills or fit my passion, we focused on something I lacked confidence in. Soon I felt demotivated and trapped in role of day to day fundraising which in turn led to a sense of failure. We got stuck in a model that meant we reached a point where we didn’t have the space – financially or mentally – to rethink our approach and so a merger became our only viable option to safeguard Glad’s House Kenya.
Bokey (left) leads Glad’s House’s work in Kenya. Since the merger, Glad’s House Kenya has become a partner of Chance for Childhood.
The strength of Glad’s House always lay within our expertise working with vulnerable children and young people and understanding the holistic support they need to thrive. I am incredibly proud of the model we developed and the reputation we built through our practice. In the early days of Glad’s House, I was also working with homeless young people in the UK and brought that expertise as we developed and refined our model of practice and I will always see myself as a practitioner. However, as Glad’s House Kenya’s team grew so did their knowledge and skill sets and soon the UK needed to focus on fundraising and developing systems and not on models of work. As a founder and CEO, my expertise always lay in frontline work and in good practice for vulnerable children and young people. As my role changed to focus on fundraising, the challenges grew. On reflection, a sidestep or a step back didn’t seem an option at that time (more on that later!) This time of change would have been the perfect time to reflect with Glad’s House Kenya about what they really needed to develop and grow to become the strongest organisation they could possibly be. If we had taken a pause, I am sure we would have entered merger discussions much sooner.
I was 20 when Glad’s House became a registered charity, and for the next 14 years I was developing my own skills as a practitioner, running and growing a small charity and being a woman in her 20s, discovering who I was. My formative years as an adult were defined by being a CEO and founder of a charity. The people that I founded Glad’s House with are my family, we have shared so much together professionally and personally including birth, death and all the bits in between.
When your work is so tired up with your identity, letting go is so much harder than it should be. I couldn’t imagine a life without seeing my Glad’s House Kenya family regularly and who was I if I was not ‘Vicky from Glad’s House’?
Whilst I’d consciously worked for my ego and pride not to be caught up in the decisions around Glad’s House, they were. Looking back, they were perhaps impacting the future of the organisation. I couldn’t imagine Glad’s House without me, and I couldn’t imagine me without Glad’s House. It took me a lot of work in therapy to untie my identity from Glad’s House and feel ready to move on and just be Vicky.
I have no doubt that progress halted at Glad’s House while I was doing that work and readying myself to let go. I would implore all founders to constantly do that work and recognise how tied up your own identity is with your charities; and indeed, be self-aware enough to know when that identity starts becoming counter-productive.
When you’ve been a CEO, albeit a self-made CEO, at 27, where do you go from there? The biggest question I have been asked since we announced the merger is how I feel about not having the title of CEO! If you’re not prepared for that – it could be a tough one to handle!
Honestly, in the run up, I did feel a sense of failure and defeat, I was very aware of other people’s perceptions of not being in a leadership role and what they would think, even though I knew it was the right move for me. But honestly, now, I feel liberated! It was time to move on and have some more ‘balance’ in my life and living without constant stress and anxiety around the future of Glad’s House is so freeing.
Glad’s House Kenya works with children and young people in Mombasa.
By the time we had had our first conversation with Chance for Childhood about a possible merger we were already struggling to forecast too far ahead. The worry about how we were going to continue the work was overwhelming. The key learning I’ve taken from this whole process is that we should have started these conversations much sooner when we were in a good place and could approach a merger strategically.
As a one-woman band, I have always believed in networking with other organisations and have been an active member in a number of networks, many of whom have members that were much bigger than Glad’s House UK. Thorough these networks, I got to know Katie and Anna-mai a number of years ago and we built a relationship of mutual respect and trust between us. This networking with other larger organisations really aided the merger and how we approached it as they were existing relationships of trust.
Katie and Anna-mai understood the strength and complexity of the work Glad’s House Kenya does and the huge alignment and opportunity it could bring to deepen Chance for Childhood. They also recognised my own skills and expertise. Even with that understanding, it was clear they held all the power. For Chance for Childhood, the merger was a strategic move that would benefit their organisation and strengthen their already amazing work. For us it was this merger or closing the doors. Despite that power imbalance, Chance for Childhood were incredibly empathic, kind and respectful throughout the whole process, but that still didn’t stop me feeling vulnerable from the awareness of that power dynamic. I have no doubt that in the hands of other organisations the dynamic could have been more problematic, and I would have felt much more out of control. I am so grateful that I took the time to build relationships with organisations and professionals that I respect and trust as without that I think the process would have been a lot harder. Therefore, if you’re a small organisation reading this, I would encourage you to go out there and build networks with different organisations, not just other small ones.
The thought of a merger absolutely terrified me 3 years ago. Now, the only thing that I would change is that I would have done it sooner. Glad’s House Kenya is now safer than it ever has been and is a step closer to realising its full potential as an organisation, which in turn means more children and young people will have the support they need and deserve. I am doing the work I love as Chance for Childhood’s Global Safeguarding Lead and I am adding value to the entire organisation’s staff and partners. That is an amazing feeling after years of being a ‘Jack of all trades’ and having to focus on fundraising which was never my passion. It wasn’t until I started at Chance for Childhood that I realised how ‘doing my best’, rather than ‘doing what I am best at’ had impacted my confidence. Is it weird having a boss again? Absolutely! But it also wonderful being part of a team and being supported by a group of amazing people and to see the work that I have worked so hard for continue and flourish in this new set up? Absolutely!
In a nutshell
- Founders – be an idealist but come back down to earth for a reality check now and again and ensure you are still the best thing for your organisation.
- Be aware of Power and act strategically before it’s too late.
- Don’t do your best, do what you’re best at.
- Your organisation’s vision may change and that’s okay but make sure you treat it as on opportunity to reflect and re-evaluate.
Global Safeguarding Lead