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Leading Effective Change in Charities: A Case Study

On 3 November Shoosmiths broadcasted to a live audience our conversation with Paul Bott, chief executive of Saint John of God (SJOG), a national charity based in the North East, which provides people with the skills and the support to gain control of their own lives.

We wanted to learn more about the cultural and systemic changes that SJOG has undergone in the last two years, a transformation recently recognised by the award of ‘Change Project of the Year’ at the National Charity Times Awards and in receiving four nominations (including one award for Finance Team of the Year) at the Third Sector Awards.  

Paul had been singled out for involving colleagues on the frontline and for his ability to manage change effectively through good leadership. Leadership is clearly of the utmost importance at this time when charities have to manage what is within their control, by being the best they possibly can be, at the same time as campaigning for more resources to meet increased demand as we enter our second national lockdown.
St John of God was a homeless Portuguese soldier and started to provide help to others from a doorway in Granada, attracted followers, then developed a hospital. Paul explained that John’s fundraising approach would no doubt have attracted censure from our Fundraising Regulator – he asked a wealthy man to pay for the burial of a poor man. Upon refusing, the next day the rich man found a corpse at his front door which he quickly arranged to bury.

The followers continued to meet need where they found it. After John’s death they were recognised as a religious community and over the next 500 years the Brothers expanded their works and are now in 52 countries. The Brothers have been in the UK since the 1880s and St John of God Hospitaller Services - now ‘SJOG’ - grew out from the Order.

When Paul joined SJOG in late 2018 it was losing nearly £2million a year on annual turnover of £15 and 20 of its 26 services were loss-making. He explained that various things needed doing all at once to turn the situation around. Paul went on a tour around the country to meet the people who worked for SJOG and the people they support. He recruited a new executive team; built trust with his board by providing it with clear information; and showed his trustees there were examples of successful organisations so that decline wasn’t inevitable. Above all, he set in train a process where SJOG listened to all its stakeholders – its staff and volunteers and the people they serve – to ask them what was important to them (“what makes your life worthwhile?”) and what they thought SJOG should be doing to advance its charitable objects – essentially the relief of poverty, sickness, old age, distress and disabled people.

Over 400 people made their voices heard and SJOG produced a draft strategy document which it ran back past those stakeholders and tweaked on the basis of the further feedback received – in particular to emphasise the importance of the charity’s volunteer base.

This resulted in a clear purpose for SJOG (consistent with its charitable objects), ‘We’re here to help’ and that means meeting need wherever it is found, underpinned by core values, of hospitality, compassion and respect, and the formulation of 12 strategic messages – including the notion that SJOG are guests in people’s lives, will help people gain control over their lives, will be a living wage employer and will receive a fair price for the care the organisation provides.

These strategic messages are the basis of SJOG’s business plan – to which everyone in the organisation commits and by which they are measured.

Paul explained that the strategy is a living thing, not just a glossy document because everyone commits to “Living Our Values Every Day” (“L-O-V-E-D). LOVED is also the programme of non-pay benefits that people said were important to them. This is just one of the ways that SJOG shows it respects all staff and volunteers, and in return people give of their best because they feel respected.

Though significant change has taken place, there was little resistance to change because the people in SJOG were co-opted in deciding what they wanted SJOG to be. 
Additional trustees have been (openly) recruited and the board is clear on its role to challenge in a constructive way, as well as to support the executive team.

SJOG has developed new services, in particular supporting people who are homeless and those who are victims of modern day slavery or trafficking. Working in partnership with a number of organisations, its services support migrants, street homeless men and women, victims of modern slavery and trafficking, tuberculosis patients and homeless people on discharge from hospitals, all deemed vulnerable due to a range of factors which may also include substance misuse and poor mental and/or physical health. Nearly half of the people the charity supports in its modern days slavery services have no recourse to public funds.

The pandemic has obviously impacted upon SJOG, as it has upon everyone else to a greater or lesser degree. Some of its services are changing, with services closing and being repurposed to meet a new need, but the organisation is also still rolling out new services. SJOG is adapting to our uncertain times because it has a clear purpose - to meet need wherever that is found, emulating the work of its founder.

SJOG was founded by a saint, run for 500 years as a religious order, is a member of Caritas Social Action Network, four of its trustees are Brothers of the Order (themselves professionally trained, in psychiatric and disability nursing, physiotherapy and teaching) and its charitable objects require SJOG to adhere to Catholic doctrine, so we asked how the charity delivers its mission in a secular society while remaining true to its origins.

Paul explained that SJOG is there to meet need of anyone, of all faiths and none. The charity is underpinned by Catholic social teaching but these seven principles – dignity, solidarity, the common good, care of the poor, peace, care for our world and the dignity of work and participation – are, he suggested, universal values that most of us would accept.

Funding remains tight and as we enter a second national lockdown very difficult times lie ahead – food prices are likely to increase going into next year, to exacerbate the food poverty many people are already experiencing - but SJOG is clear about its purpose to continue to meet need and will continue to adapt to fulfil it, working to increase its share of earned income, growing and replicating service models that are successful.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.

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