Leadership in The Donkey Sanctuary – making a difference!

Since it was founded in 1969 The Donkey Sanctuary has successfully evolved from modest beginnings to be an employer of over 600 staff and 650 volunteers across the UK and internationally. They also care for over 6,000 donkeys in the UK and Europe, including the largest collective group of mules in the UK.

Through an innovative leadership training programme which is now embedded in the organisation’s culture, the charity has ensured managers are prepared and confident to deliver ambitious objectives relating to the number of donkeys they reach and the quality of care provided. This also includes improving visitor facilities and interaction on site in Sidmouth.

The Donkey Sanctuary has a presence in over 30 countries helping to relieve suffering and improve lives of over one million donkeys. They have seven farms in Devon, a holding base in Derbyshire, six locations across the UK providing donkey interaction sessions for children and vulnerable adults, and attract more than 300,000 visitors a year to their site in Sidmouth.  The charity employs managers across a range of disciplines, from Farm Management, Graphic Design, Finance, Veterinary Services, HR, Fundraising and Building Trades.

Objectives of the leadership training

In 2014 The Donkey Sanctuary set about designing a leadership programme that would be applicable to managers in all disciplines providing consistency of approach and equipping managers with the correct tools to deal with the changes and ensure they make best use of the diverse skillset of existing staff. “The new programme provided more of a structure linking with the strategy and building on previous training explains Steven James, who joined as the Learning & Development Manager in 2014 and was tasked with overhauling the approach. “With the scale of growth in recent years we had people who had started at the charity supporting the care and welfare of the animals now having to manage people on a more formal basis. The allocation of daily tasks was fine but as far as staff engagement was concerned there was limited training and development for managers on how to engage with and motivate their teams.”

Challenges

As the charity has expanded and both donkey and visitor numbers increased, the skills required to deal with these developments have changed considerably. “People were initially recruited to provide care and welfare to the animals. We’re now asking them to care for much larger numbers of donkeys, interact with visitors and tell stories about where the donkeys are coming from and where donations are going,” explains Steven James. “It’s a whole different skillset, so for managers trying to get staff engaged this posed a new challenge.”

Dedicated staff and volunteers means that there is a relatively low turnover of staff, with over a quarter of the staff serving fifteen years or more. The positive side of this is knowledgeable staff and volunteers, the flip side is that change can be slow to embed. It also means that teams are multi-generational, with baby boomers working alongside millennials. “One style clearly doesn’t fit all - we needed to equip managers to engage with their teams on all levels,” notes Steven James.

More generally, The Donkey Sanctuary is by necessity a functional organisation, providing care and welfare for the donkeys 24/7, 365 days a year. Alan Brown, Farm Manager, who took part in the training having been a manager there for 22 years said: “We’re more based on the practicalities; our focus is on caring for the donkeys, monitoring and dealing with any behavioural issues and where possible getting them ready for rehoming.” The challenge was to make the training applicable to all areas of the business, including those like Alan’s.

What did the training entail?                                                                                                          

The training comprised three one day workshops followed up with individual or small group support sessions with the managers and their teams. The workshops sought to provide managers with the tools to get to know their teams better, in terms of individual values, style and providing feedback on how staff were performing. “It was always geared towards giving us a common language, a common set of standards, and common tools that people could use” says Steven James. “It was about asking managers the question – “Why should teams be led by you” – and getting them to identify their strengths and be able to articulate that, rather than accepting that the title gave them the authority to lead.”

The first session was on personal leadership and strategy; getting people to identify what they did on a daily basis and how that linked to the charity’s five-year strategy. The second session looked at the practical application of leading teams through a series of interactive activities with peer feedback, and the third session focused on coaching. Work is underway to support managers to identify strengths within their teams and create a talent map for the whole organisation, further training is planned around understanding what skills we have within the teams and mapping that against what we require for the next 5 – 10 years. “It’s very much is a starting point,” says Steven James.

The practical approach allowed managers to immediately put into place different strategies. Advised on how to structure team meetings, Alan Brown says these have become increasingly useful forums. “Also, the tools we have been given have given us something to refer to in a difficult situation, meaning we can plan it out first and have a dry run, which makes you feel more confident as a manager.” Jaime Down, Farm Supervisor, who is relatively new to management, says the tools have helped her in working collaboratively with her team.

Impact

Given the challenge of wide ranging disciplines, and cultural differences in teams in Europe, managers found the training programme valuable and relevant. As Steven James says, “the principles of aligning the values went across all teams and countries”.

The experience has opened up managers’ eyes to the strengths and priorities of those they work with. Jamie Down says she was surprised to learn how much people valued coaching, and pleased that the trainer encouraged managers to take the time to train people, rather than just rely on someone who would already do a job well. “That’s a really good form of management because in the long-term it’s much more productive to spend the time coaching people to get to that level. We’ve now got a really multi-skilled team as a result.”

Guidance on how to map their team’s talent has enabled them to identify strengths and weaknesses. “We’ve mapped our full team and paired people to help and mentor each other, to get everyone to a much stronger level in themselves, which helps with productivity, and helps us meet our targets,” says Jaime Down. “It’s definitely benefited the team – everyone is really motivated now.”

What does achieving the award mean?

“Achieving this award means the complete endorsement of what we thought we were doing right, of the materials we delivered, and of the fact that what we delivered made a difference,” says Steven James.