When We Belong became an independent charity in October 2019, it marked the end of a three-year journey to “spin out” from parent organisation Just for Kids Law. In its short existence, We Belong – formerly names Let Us Learn – had evolved from being a project aiming to remove barriers to higher education for young migrants to a standalone organisation campaigning on issues including a rise in immigration fees for children.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)was funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to evaluate We Belong’s separation from its parent charity so that others in the youth sector considering setting up an independent organisation could learn from what worked well and how challenges were overcome.
NCVO analysed documents and carried out interviews with senior officers at We Belong and Just for Kids Law in drawing up its findings and to develop key points for learning (see Key Learning, below).
Rationale for independence
From the word go, there was an understanding at Just for Kids Law and We Belong that the project would eventually become independent. The project had participation and co-production at its core, whereas community organising is not a focus of Just for Kids Law.
“Staff acknowledged this aspect of Let Us Learn’s work was likely to be better served by becoming independent,” the report states.
The mismatch between the aims of the project and ethos of the charity were highlighted in tensions between the ambition of We Belong to be youth led and the need to fit within an organisational governance structure. “Behind the scenes, young people weren’t making decisions; everything had to go through Just for Kids Law,” says Dami Makinde, co-founder of We Belong.
Organisers felt independence would transform the voice of young people in discussions with the wider immigration sector from one of “tokenism” to “occupying the space” so that their experiences could influence debate and decisions about the system. There were also funders that would only renew grants if the organisation spun out.
Leadership and skills
Just for Kids Law provided “invaluable” support in getting the project started and mentoring We Belong founders Chrisann Jarrett and Makinde. They had become “compelling spokespeople” for the project who by 2018 were “the go-to people on the question of youth and migration” and “supporting the incoming generation of young people with insecure migration status”, says one expert in the report.
Both had undertaken secondments and study trips to build their leadership skills and project management abilities, but required a further “intensive period of support and guidance” on charity operations, fundraising, finance and governance to take on the role of co-chief executive.
Support from a key funder during the two-year transition also helped Jarrett and Makinde develop the new organisation.
Host of challenges
The report shows that the relationship between We Belong and Just for Kids Law “was not always easy” during the transition process. Despite this, rigorous challenge from the charity’s board helped refine and improve We Belong as an organisation and strengthen its business plan.
“Previously close relationships were tested as the process of becoming independent took longer than initially expected and trustees scrutinised specific issues of We Belong’s [plans],” the report notes.
At a practical level, the evaluation identified that it was sometimes unclear who was responsible for “moving items forward or signing them off”.
There was also some confusion over the process for getting approval for the new charity to be created, which led to frustration among We Belong’s leadership over what was perceived to be “a lengthy and bureaucratic process”.
We Belong’s application for charity status took eight months to be approved due to a clarification sought over issues, including its charitable purpose, campaigning, safeguarding and selection of trustees. The evaluation notes this was a “stressful period” because its independent status rested on the outcome.
While the delays were frustrating, they provided extra time to consider operational practicalities of setting up, such as finding office space, human resources, finance and governance.
Another consequence of the lengthy transition process was the amount of time senior staff had to spend on creating We Belong and how this diverted them from project work.
“This meant day-to-day work had to be deprioritised during the move to independence… they were not able to maintain momentum in their engagement work with young people,” the evaluation states.
- Start with why: Being clear about the reason We Belong needed to be independent helped sustain momentum through tricky periods in the process
- Tap into advice: Having the support and mentoring of Just for Kids Law and outside experts was vital to the successful transition
- Be prepared for setbacks: The process was more emotionally challenging than the parties expected. Managing this was vital
- Prepare extensively: Meetings with trustees prior to board meetings put leaders in a strong position to answer questions from funders and trustees
- Be a good host: It is vital the host organisation gives clarity on the decision-making processes to minimise the risk of tensions emerging; ensure key staff in the spun-out organisation receive the training needed; and be prepared to commit time and resources.
Source: NCVO, February 2020