“You’re working where?”

By our consultant, Richard Sved

They say there’s a first time for everything. And everyone I told about this piece of work I did with RedQuadrant reacted with the above words.

Upminster WindmillYou see, I’ve worked in and with a range of charities, museums, libraries and archives for over 20 years, but I had never done a piece of work for a windmill before. Yes, a windmill. Until now. And as it’s a first for RedQuadrant too, they asked me to write a bit about what we did.

Upminster Windmill is a beautiful iconic windmill built in 1803. It had fallen into disrepair in recent years, but thanks to the sterling efforts of local volunteers spearheaded by the Upminster Windmill Preservation Trust, things are now looking up. Detailed plans for its restoration are set to become a reality thanks to major pledged support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We were asked to carry out a review of their governance structures and processes to help ensure that the windmill remains successful in the longer term, in the years beyond its planned restoration. So, here are some of the key learnings from this interesting and exciting piece of work:

Maintaining strong leadership into the future

It soon became clear that the board had a particularly strong and capable leader in its chair. And this isn’t surprising, as considerable leadership skills must doubtless have been needed to get to this point.

A key part of our work was to look at how dependent the charity was on a single person’s efforts. Was there a succession plan? How were new board members to be recruited and inducted? Happily, a lot of the thinking had already been done in this important area, and the chair was strongly supported by a number of key board members, so we were able to build on that in our recommendations.

Understanding that the wheels keep turning

Apologies – I’ve used a windmill-related metaphor, but this is a key point about governance. The Upminster Windmill Preservation Trust has been tremendously successful in saving the windmill and getting it to the point of restoration.

But the wheels keep turning. Soon after the ribbon is cut on the newly restored windmill, it will need to be run effectively as a somewhat different entity. What skills are needed on the board to ensure that it operates smoothly thereafter? We looked for example at how to build the charity’s ability to promote and fundraise for the windmill’s upkeep, and at what professional support might be needed in the mid to long term, as well as how that knowledge might be transferred to the board.

Harnessing the passion

Working with the board and volunteers, we quickly learned that they were fiercely passionate about the windmill. It was important to them in such a variety of ways – as a piece of heritage, because of its attendant social history, as a means of educating people about engineering, and particularly as a surviving working mill. To extend the milling metaphor, it is these passions that will help to turn the sails of the organisation in future years. We hope that the governance review will help the charity to harness them well.

And finally, we learned about how important and motivating for its volunteers the windmill was as an iconic local landmark, almost literally a beacon for the community. As one survey participant responded, “it is Upminster.”

And with its imminent restoration and strong governance to the fore, it looks set to play that role for generations to come.

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