This guide is aimed at Chief Executives, managers and trustees. It outlines how organisations with a national body and local groups can work together. They may be separate organisations together forming a federal structure or may legally all be part of one organisation with a branch structure.
The model describes good practice for such organisations - in new or existing structures - with a particular eye on areas where shared understanding of structure can help avoid common pitfalls.
National voluntary organisations may operate solely from one centre or they may have local bases across England, or the UK. Organisations with this combination of a national body and local presence may work collaboratively in a federal structure or in a branch structure.
Organisational structures often develop organically over time. However complex and varied the structures that emerge, many of them improve outcomes for beneficiaries by combining the ability to co-ordinate national activities, such as campaigning, with the flexibility to respond to local needs that may vary over a wide area.
When relationships between parts of a network break down, the effects can be time consuming and damaging so it is worth giving time and resources to managing relations effectively.
The local organisation may be known as a local group, a branch, an affiliate or a member organisation. This model uses the terms, local group and national body, irrespective of the structure they belong to. It uses networks to refer to both federal and branch structures. The case studies use each organisation's own terms. The terms 'federal' and 'branch' themselves are often used interchangeably and for widely varying structures.
What are the features of a federal structure?
Organisations which comprise both a national body and a number of independent local groups have a federal structure. The national body may retain some control over the local groups, but on other issues, the local groups have autonomy (a set-up with parallels to a franchise in the private sector). There should be no fundamental difference between the charitable objects of the organisations in such a network, although their geographical area of benefit will vary.
What are the features of a branch structure?
A branch structure is constitutionally one organisation. It comprises a national organisation with regional or local branches. The branches are part of the national organisation and share its governance structure and charitable aims.
Branches which form part of one organisation may also be known as local committees, supporters' groups, friends' groups, members' groups, communities or parishes.
Advantages of national organisations with local groups
Federal and branch structures provide organisations with a balance between national presence and grassroots involvement. The benefits of this combination may include:
- a way of achieving charitable aims at local level, across counties or regions
- responsiveness to need as a local group is closer to the client group
- fresh opinions and ideas, reflecting experience on the ground
- a useful structure for local involvement by service users and volunteers, including fundraisers - local ownership can increase loyalty
- a pool of potential partners for local groups keen to do joint projects who already understand the work and are culturally compatible
- a strong campaigning voice based on local feedback - evidence gathered nationwide is likely to be more powerful
- a way of mobilising local support for national campaigns
- influence on local decision-making at all levels from local to national, eg. lobbying MPs in their own constituencies
- clear, co-ordinated image with one well-known brand name
- consistency across a wide area, eg. in the range of services offered, quality standards
Federal and branch networks are complex structures dependent for success on good governance, management and communication skills - all of which take time, effort and resources. Potential areas of difficulty may include:
- tension between national body & local groups, eg. competion for fundraising 'territory'; influence of the national body
- appointment and training of trustees
- decision-making and strategy
- internal communication
- ensuring consistency in quality standards
- ensuring fair treatment of a high volume of staff and volunteers
Effective governance and communication are key to successful working relationships between national bodies and local groups. Trustees need to keep under review how an organisation's structure can help it achieve its aims for beneficiaries.
Typically, the objectives of national bodies specify that they provide advice and guidance to local groups. Local groups' objectives usually focus on helping clients locally. Organisations are failing their beneficiaries if they do not fulfil the charitable aims laid down in their own governing document.
It is trustees' decision how far to embed the roles and responsibilities of organisations in their governing document. Otherwise, they should be set down in writing elsewhere. Shared understanding of where roles and responsibilities lie will help minimise potential confusion and conflict, among staff, volunteers, beneficiaries and other stakeholders.
Your governing document is the starting point for how you disseminate understanding of roles to people in the different parts of the network. You should explain organisational structure in plain language and point out its implications for the way that people work together. Local groups may be required to sign up to such procedures.
- Local groups need to be clear on the powers and role of the national body as described in their governing document. The national body, equally, should be clear on the level of autonomy of local groups.
- Make these explanations available to stakeholders when they are introduced to the organisation and for later reference.
As part of its focus on benefit to the client, Relate has developed and circulated a list of definitions, describing parts of the Relate Federation and how they relate to each other. This helps ensure that everyone is clear on how different parts of the Federation contribute to its charitable aims.
Avoiding and managing conflict
Don't ignore the human element in managing a network of organisational relationships. Misunderstandings can escalate into serious problems so two-way communication is vital. Mediation can be the answer to internal disputes, but there are costs involved and prevention is better than cure. A transparent, consistent management style and explanation of decisions made by the national body can counter perceptions of unfair treatment.
- The national body should communicate regularly with local groups - ask which method they would find most effective.
- Encourage local groups to feed into ideas and planning at national level.
- Encourage the national body to keep local groups up to speed on thinking at national level and to explain how local input has contributed to this.
- Organise regular meetings between the national body and representatives of local groups.
- Lay down procedures for managing dispute between parts of the structure.
Can structure affect how you work?
Most local groups in both federal and branch structures can fundraise for themselves and keep the money that they raise to use in their local area. But sometimes a national body may fundraise in the area of a local group. It is essential that fundraisers can explain which part of their network they are fundraising for and make this clear in fundraising material. Without clarity on the destination of the money raised, there may be auditing problems at year end.
- If a local group is collecting for its own local purposes this needs to be made clear to the public. If a local group is collecting for its national body this also needs to be made clear.
- Equally, when promoting legacies, all organisations should ask legators to state whether they wish to leave a legacy to the national body or the local group.
Where federal or branch organisations are approaching trusts, foundations, corporates or statutory funders, they risk overwhelming them with similar applications. To avoid duplication:
- co-ordinate fundraising within the structure to clarify the different funding needs of national and local organisations
- find out whether funders prefer to support organisations' work at local or national level
Fundraisers across the organisation need to maintain regular contact to ensure they have a consistent approach, from paid staff in the national body to street collectors supporting local groups.
Governance arrangements in federal and branch organisations can vary considerably, but must always take into account what is most effective for the organisation's beneficiaries.
- The governing documents of national bodies in some federal structures may require a number of trustees of local groups to sit on the board of the national body.
- In branch structures, the national body's governing document often requires the national board to include local committee members.
These options can confuse local trustees who also sit on a national board - where should their allegiance lie? Having a local trustee at national level may not bring a local voice into national decision-making because trustees cannot be mandated to represent particular interests.
Nevertheless, trustees on a national board who are informed by local experience can improve:
- accountability - providing in-house scrutiny
- decisions that affect local people
- how organisations represent the diversity of their stakeholders
Different skills may be required for governance at different levels. Where local groups nominate new trustees for the national body, it is helpful if organisations can provide:
- a job description and person specification for potential trustees
- information about the organisation's structure and trustees' role and responsibilities
Charity trustees have a legal obligation to carry out risk assessments. In federal structures, this responsibility lies with the trustee body of each charity. Where an organisation has only one set of trustees, the responsibility for risk assessment lies with them. It includes risks associated with the national body itself and its local branches.
Read Charity Commission guidance on charities and risk management
In federal structures, legal title to property is held by each separate organisation. In branch structures, legal title to property across the network is often held by the national body, but individual situations vary. This is a complex area where Charity Commission advice is recommended, particularly if organisational structure changes or local groups close.
Changing your structure
Improving services to beneficiaries is the ultimate reason for changing an existing structure or developing a new one. The Charity Commission recommend that organisations contact them early on for advice on legal and regulatory issues.
A steering group to give direction to your restructuring should be representative of all stakeholders - volunteers, staff, members, trustees - from across the country.
- Have you reviewed all the options and conducted a feasibility study?
- Take into account how working locally or regionally would affect all areas of your work. What are the differences between local and national priorities? Between different regions' priorities? It may not be appropriate to apply the same blueprint for all local groups, but you must explain why variations are necessary to meet local need.
- Check what is possible according to your governing document. If you are unsure or wish to make changes beyond its scope, seek advice from the Charity Commission.
- Change can cost money. Can you set aside funding for the process?
- How will change affect how money needs to flow through different parts of the organisation?
Explain the proposed changes to stakeholders, including the reasons for them and their implications, as local groups may fear losing influence. When Diabetes UK set up regional offices, it disseminated a ten year vision for the organisation to its internal audiences to put the structural changes into context.