SELFA's seven-year triumph

23 November 2023
SELFA charity


In 2016 SELFA Children's Charity were recipients of a Weston Charity Award, which not only supported the organisation with a core grant of £6,500 from the Garfield Weston Foundation, but also began a period of transformation through the Pilotlight 360 programme. Emma Pears, Founder and CEO of SELFA reflects on the seven years since they embarked on the Pilotlight process and the lasting legacy it has had.

First impressions

I remember the first day I travelled down from Yorkshire and walked through the Pilotlight reception in London to be greeted by a team of business experts and feeling like the imposter in the room.

Letting a team of professionals put our little charity under the spotlight felt quite daunting initially. Having helped to set up the charity nine years earlier, I knew that to really make a difference in the lives of children and young people for years to come, we needed to embrace significant change. To accomplish that we needed support, particularly around how we could apply business strategy to our blossoming organisation.

It was tough at first, as I sometimes felt like I had to defend SELFA and why we did things the way we did, but once I became teachable and open to new ways of working, we really started to make progress. 

I'd never really thought about strategy before as a small charity leader, I was focused on the 'here and now' and a lot of short-term outcomes for the families we supported, without really seeing the bigger picture. 

I knew we needed some sort of strategic plan and the Pilotlight process gave me the time and space to look at where we needed to plan for the future. I still remember one of our 'Pilotlighters,' Des, saying to me "you know Emma, a lot of the stuff you've put in your strategic plan won’t happen the way you think it will and SELFA could look quite different to this in three years’ time, but you've got to have plan of where you're going. That's what strategy is - it's the journey rather than the destination."

As well as the monthly meetups in London, the Pilotlighters came to visit us at SELFA at the beginning of the process which aided them get a real grasp on the issues we were facing. It was really helpful to have their involvement in that way, as they could positively challenge trustees in a way I couldn't and it really helped them see the importance of good governance at SELFA, as well as the role they played in this.

Learning new tricks

Some of the issues we explored were things we’d tried in the past at SELFA. We revisited those issues with a fresh pair of eyes and the 20:20 vision of hindsight. One of those problems was the recruitment and retention of volunteers, something we’d never been very successful at in our first nine years. The Pilotlighters helped us to see the value in what had gone wrong and how to build on this, learning to create new and exciting volunteering opportunities. Fast-forward and we now have over 20 regular volunteers as well as corporate volunteering opportunities which have led to lasting relationships with local and national business partners.

The facilitation of the Pilotlight Project Managers was brilliant too and, their insight and questioning helped to get great results in our year together. They organised our first ever strategic team away day at SELFA, which enabled the whole team to come together and really become invested in the direction of the charity and create a shared vision. 

Covid-19 was a really pivotal time for us and showed just how resilient we were in adapting to the ever-changing guidance and regulations. We kept supporting our families throughout the pandemic, acting as a community support organisation, and ensuring that we were still there for children and young people by redesigning our services to meet the needs we were facing.

The future looks bright

In the seven years since we completed Pilotlight 360, we've kept moving forward - our income has increased threefold, we now have diverse and secure funding streams as well as clear financial planning. We are reaching more children and families than ever before, branching into new areas of work around children's mental health and addressing health inequalities. All of this at a time when charities have been under more pressure than ever before, both financially and in terms of demand for our services.

I'm not sure if we'd be where we are now without the Garfield Weston Foundation and Pilotlight, the intensive support led to a step-change to SELFA and helped us 'future-proof' our organisation for the challenging times we've faced since.

I can honestly say that the year spent with Pilotlight was the most impactful time in my 20+ years career in the voluntary sector, we are still reaping the benefits of the opportunities that it brought many years later.

Related Charities

If you lead a charity based in the North or Midlands of England or Wales, you too could be eligible to apply to the Weston Charity Awards.  

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