“I am actually in the Antarctic running the Ice Marathon”, read the ‘out of office’ reply Charity Times received after contacting Dr Beverley Jacobson for an interview. Antarctic fundraising excursions aren’t unique in the charity sector, but this author was surprised to promptly receive a follow-up message from the Kisharon chief executive looking to arrange an interview time.
This illustrates the dedication to the job she has demonstrated during nine years at Kisharon, during which time she has driven a remarkable turnaround. This was recognised in last year’s Charity Times Awards, when judges singled Jacobson out as Principal of the Year. The recovery at Kisharon was said to be characterised by clear direction and delivery.
Most remarkable of all was the fact that Jacobson arrived at Kisharon with no previous experience as a charity chief executive. However, a career across practicing medicine, healthcare management, and volunteering clearly armed her with the skills required to succeed in the role.
“It was just by chance that I saw this job advertised and applied for it,” Jacobson says. “The trustees put a lot of faith in judgement rather than experience by appointing me. For me it was a fantastic opportunity because it was a small enough charity that I felt confident to give it a go.”
Today, Kisharon offers a broad range of services, including an advice service, an integrated nursery, a special school, a further education college, day support services, an employment service, a supported living service and a social enterprise subsidiary.
The charity had annual turnover of almost £5.1 million in the year to August 2015, against spending of more than £5 million. Two thirds of income is statutory funding and the rest is voluntary.
Kisharon employs around 120 staff and calls upon the same number of volunteers to deliver its services in North London. Founded in 1976, the charity has objects for the benefit of Jewish people with learning disabilities.
Jacobson joined the charity in September 2008, nine months after the previous chief executive, deputy chief executive, head of fundraising and head of finances had left.
She followed the path less travelled into the role, having begun her career as a medical doctor in South Africa, following the paediatric route.
However, an HIV needle stick injury changed Jacobson’s course significantly. It was early in the spread of the pandemic, and even earlier in the development of tests for the virus. There was an 18-month wait between an incident risking infection and knowing whether she had contracted HIV.
“I was a bit in a psychological upheaval, and as a result decided that I needed some time out,” Jacobson says. “I opted to come and do a Master of Business Administration at the London Business School, partly because I was always interested in management and also I thought that if I didn’t want to go back into medicine it was a different route.”
Not long after starting her first job since completing the MBA, Jacobson’s first daughter was born with group B strep meningitis, and suffered severe brain damage. Caring for a child with very complex needs meant Jacobson was out of the workforce for around 12 years, and introduced her to the world of learning disability.
“The first six years of her life were extremely difficult, really hard to cope. I often look back on that and think I wouldn’t have done it without the different support structures that reached out and helped me that I didn’t even know existed beforehand.”
As many people who benefit from the work of charities often do, Jacobson developed the desire to give back. Volunteering to fundraise and offer support opened her eyes to charity work, and she was eager to take the chance when the Kisharon opportunity arose.
However, the charity was precariously placed when Jacobson took it over.
Unable to raise enough voluntary income to meet the costs of three new services, the charity had incurred an operating loss of £1.6 million in 2007. This shortfall was met by refinancing the charity’s assets with a £2 million facility, secured at a fixed 6.45 per cent rate just months before rates crashed in response to the global financial crisis.
“It was a surprise,” Jacobson says. “On the surface it looked like it was okay because the shortfall had been met by remortgaging the assets. So the accounts looked a lot healthier than they were in truth. I hadn’t been here for a day when we had a visit from the HMRC to come and collect the taxes from the year before and we didn’t have enough cash in our account to pay that.”
Jacobson says the organisation had grown organically over time and had always been very well supported. Having run operating surpluses had allowed the charity to innovate in response to changing need, without the discipline that comes with limited funds.
Several of the charity’s services were running at losses of between £100,000 and £350,000 a year, and were not running as cost centres so the people in charge of them did not know whether they were running efficiently or even sustainably.
The temporary closure of the charity’s further education college in response to poor inspection results, without any reduction in staff, further placed pressure on Kisharon’s finances.
“There had been a lot of changes and services hadn’t been properly managed in terms of having a clear direction for the way forward and keeping them sustainable,” Jacobson says.
“There was lots of use of agency workers that were very expensive, and there was very high absenteeism. It was just really inefficient in the way each service was being run.”
The operating problems along with underinvestment in expertise had resulted in the charity offering “mediocre services in poor facilities”, Jacobson says.
“It was very much a negative spiral of not attracting new people to the services and therefore no new income. It was just going around in circles. What had to be done was really to stop the bleeding first and then very quickly start finding ways of changing that whole process.”
Jacobson set out on a review over six months, working closely with the trustee board on ways to turn the organisation around.
That resulted in an organisation-wide restructure in 2009, including the introduction of a new pay scale and new terms and conditions. Each service became an independent cost centre with local budget management and a focus on specific service-related goals, which all had promoting independence for individuals at their heart.
Finances stabilised and the organisation achieved a sounder footing, but unsurprisingly given the nature of the change feathers were ruffled.
The impact of the financial crash in 2008 also started to flow through into local authority budgets, restricting the funds available for many of the services Kisharon provides. “Constant pressure” on statutory income had been a challenge throughout the process.
Practical changes gearing services increasingly towards greater independence of users met with some resistance internally, but people came around when they started to see success. The process benefited from changing perceptions of disability over the past decade, Jacobson says.
“Our services were quite inward-looking and institutionalised, and were certainly a little bit behind the times. But once that process started, the whole movement of what was going on within society and the way our community has embraced trying to support the changes we were making has been hugely helpful. They’ve opened up lots of opportunities for us in terms of inclusion and employment and those sorts of things.”
With Kisharon on a sound financial footing and operating efficiently as a modern service delivery charity, Jacobson says the contribution of inspirational leaders within the organisation and dedicated trustees has been invaluable.
“The engagement and involvement of very talented trustees has been hugely instrumental for moving things on; they’ve really been supportive from the start,” she says. “Also I’ve always managed to find mentors in the community or people in the field who’ve really helped me. Creating those networks has been a major factor in giving me confidence to take steps and learn along the way. I think it’s really important to be a reflective practitioner, and to be able to change if things aren’t quite as you hoped they would turn out.”
Further developments are underway, with Kisharon set to take over running one of Barnet’s libraries from April. Jacobson says the new operation will provide a whole learning stream for individuals with learning disabilities, and include other learning microenterprises.
A bigger, and longer-term initiative includes the conversion of Kisharon School from Independent to Free School status.
The initiative includes building a brand new school, bringing the facility up to date to be fully equipped to deal with children with multiple and severe learning disabilities. The process has been complicated by the fact the new school is to be built on a Kisharon site that contains a listed building, but Jacobson is hopeful the facility will operating for the 2019 academic year providing places for 72 children.
While it has not been easy getting the charity to this point, it is clear that for Jacobson the hard work has been worth it.
“The first successful job that you manage to secure for an individual with learning disabilities, or the first person you put into supported living successfully, all those kinds of things, it’s really, really exciting,” she says.
“That’s when I get completely filled with passion and zeal because you just watch people visibly change, whether they dress smarter, stand taller, walk with more confidence, or suddenly start talking spontaneously as opposed to always having to try and edge words out of them. Then you realise how you can really transform lives. That’s been really exciting.”