Financial sustainability Pensions and HR Leadership

Facing organisational endings

The past year has been a complex and challenging year for non-profits, to say the least. On the one hand our work — broadly that of charities, social enterprises, community businesses and non-profits — has never been more needed. From hospices to community shops, from care providers to foodbanks, non-profits offer backup and support that millions of people have relied on over the past year, more than ever.

Yet in this time of great need the outlook for the sustainability and survival of many non-profit organisations is uncertain. Every day brings news of redundancies in the charity sector with latest figures suggesting 60,000 jobs will go (this Redundancy Calculator from New Philanthropy Capital paints an eye wateringly stark picture) whilst 11% reported in the latest NCVO Sector Barometer that it was quite likely or very likely that their organisation would no longer be operating next year.

The story of organisational loss, as ever, is an unequal one. The Ubele Initiative last year estimated as many as nine in 10 BAME led organisations are facing closure having been cut out and cut off from the resources and power reserved for their peers not just this year but over decades. All in the shadow of the great loss of lives.

Since 2019, Cassie Robinson and I have been exploring organisational endings.

This work is rooted in our belief that endings and new beginnings are a part of the natural cycle of growth, change, renewal and innovation within the non-profit sector. Yet despite this there is little talk of loss and endings throughout the life cycle of non-profits. And there is all-too-limited resource for and ambition around what better endings look like for organisations — by better we mean endings that are designed intelligently, responsibly and compassionately.

What we’ve noticed

Through a wide ranging listening and research project, non-profit staff have shared with us a range of things that stand in the way of better organisational endings. These include:

  • A lack of open conversation about endings in the sector means that endings are often a ‘taboo subject’;
  • A ‘survival at all costs’ mentality can set in amongst some trustees and staff which prevents decisions around endings being taken early enough for closures or mergers to be designed and planned carefully and intentionally;
  • Endings involve complex logistical, legal and financial considerations
    which are fairly well chartered in toolkits by infrastructure organisations and regulators, yet endings are also marked by different experiences and emotions by all those involved and these are rarely designed into endings;
  • There are lots of coaches, facilitators, advisers and organisations who can support organisations to consider and design better endings but these people can be hard to identify as there isn’t a public community of these people. And non-profits need time and money in order for organisations to benefit from their skill and expertise;
  • People told us how funders can fuel the tendency towards badly designed endings. From the prevalence of short term, output based funding embedding a ‘survival at all costs’ mentality in non-profits, through to the limited opportunity for conversation around and funding available to support organisations to end well.
  • The language, intent, design and best practice for organisational endings which places leaders of non-profits of all shapes and sizes considering closure in a very difficult position. This means that undertaking a closure or merger largely feels like a process of ‘walking around in the dark’.

What we’ve shared

Rooted in what we’ve heard through this work, we have developed resources to stimulate and catalyse energy and discussion on better organisational endings. First, we have created Sensing An Ending: a resource for those organisations that need immediate support with how to face closure. Second, we have published Staying Close to Loss which is an introduction to the idea of continual enquiry in an organisation’s lifespan — where loss and endings are considered within organisational strategy as ordinarily as ‘growth.’

Where next

From here we are growing a body of work to test our thinking and support organisations facing closure imminently along with those looking to explore possible endings in an upstream way. This work includes:

  • Care-full Closures: A community of practice — a network of practitioners who can support organisations to design their endings
  • Ongoing listening — a new series of peer-to-peer circles to create space for conversation about organisational endings facilitated by Janice Johnson
  • A series of events — that will bring this work into the wider consciousness of civil society organisations curated by Ivor Williams (keep your eyes on our social media for more information)
  • Partnerships with networks and umbrella bodies to share our work and support with them and their members
  • An enquiry specifically for funders

Finally, we are delighted to have secured funding for the Care-Full Closures Fund to support organisations looking to design a closure or merger. Read on to find out more.



The Care-Full Closures Fund from Stewarding Loss

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation has generously provided funding for the new Care-Full Closures Fund to give tailored support to up to four organisations anticipating, considering or designing a closure or merger. If you, or an organisation you know, might benefit from dedicated support, please complete this form here or contact Iona:

Who is this fund for?

This fund is open to non-profit organisations of any size.If you are anticipating an organisational ending all you might have at the moment is a shared sense that your work might need to stop or change. Or it might be something you and your colleagues or trustees might have had at the back of your minds for many years, but recent events have hastened the idea. If your organisation is at one of these stages, we’d love to hear from you.

What support will grantees get?

Up to four organisations will be offered paid-for time with experienced consultants Caroline Ellis, Delia Barker and Faye Davies at the firm Deeds and Words. Alongside them Iona Lawrence, co-lead of Stewarding Loss, will also support. Organisations will also be given a grant of up to £4,000 to fund staff time and associated costs for this work.

If you think your organisation would benefit from dedicated support to consider closure, please complete this form. More information on the work of Stewarding Loss to date, this funding opportunity and how to apply is in the blog here.


About the author

Iona Lawrence is the founder of Iona Consultancy and works with individuals, charities and businesses to and businesses to achieve breakthroughs on intractable issues. Iona helps charities to understand how change happens and who you need on your side to achieve huge breakthroughs.

This post was last reviewed on 6 July 2021 at 12:18
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