My last blog was about looking back. This one is about looking forward. It is starting to feel as if it might be reasonable to do more proactive planning. 2020 was definitely a fully reactive year and for much of 2021 it felt like we were holding our breath waiting for the ball to drop, which thankfully never did. In some ways it was nice to have a break from things like the routine of putting on event after event and it is refreshing to come back to see anew what we might be able to organise. But I also think it felt like a year of treading water and that isn’t the most satisfying year – even if lovely things were still achieved. So it nice to shake off the cobwebs and get a good planning head on and get excited about what we might be able to achieve next!

Planning Ahead

We had our annual Planning Day back in February and the Board started by looking at the results of the latest visitor survey and at the judges comments from the latest Green Flag visit to see if there were issues that needed taking forward in the plan for the next year.  They next considered the year just gone and updated our plan with comments and then onto the year ahead....

There was a lot of business as usual such as submitting for Green Flag Award  and the events programme – just like it used to be, but with some new energy behind events like the Picnic and Santa. We have been invited to enter  for a Royal Forestry Society Award, and have done so and been shortlisted for judging.  We have decided not to go for the Queens Award for Volunteering after two failed attempts.  Thanks to the energy of the Environment group which has gone from a task group reworking our policy, to an active research and ideas group, each area of our operation is thinking in more detail about changes we could make to make ourselves a more enviromental responsible organisation.  We had a plan a decade ago but had achieved all of the things we decided on then.  But the world has moved on and we need to too.  We have also decided to try and find funding again for free junior golf, but know that if we can't at least these activities can still be provided by Greg Lynch as a commercial offering.

There are always lots of ideas floating in the ether – and one of the jobs of the Board at Planning Day is to consider how best to use the resources we have. One key resource is obviously money.  The other is the combination of staff and volunteer resources.  

Money Matters

In some ways the easiest to deal with is the financial resources – as these are quite concrete – there is no point coming up with lots of things we can’t afford. So first we prepare a budget that covers the essential expenditure, and then make an educated guess at the income which might come in and then if there is is a positive balance (some years there is, some years there isn’t) then the Board get to decide what things on the wish list can be included in the plan. Sometimes they are tiny things, like office equipment and others big like mowers or tarmac! The Board frequently decides on the most important conditional projects. They are things that we really want to do, but will need grant fundraising for and so will only happen if the applications are successful. There are, of course, projects which could go ahead if our income during the year exceeds our expectations, or perhaps if we ran a public fundraising campaign, but in general the Board is a cautious decision making body and tries to work well within its financial resources, to be sure we can handle any of the unknowns that a year can throw at us.

This year there was no large projected surplus in funds, but the Board did decide to spend some of the surplus husbanded from the last two years of operations that it was holding back in case of future lockdowns.  In 2020 we actually did incredibly well with finances, as we drew back on any absolutely non essential spending from 1st April right through to 31st March - as on both of those dates we were in lockdown! But during that year local grants, government covid grants, public donations and a renewed general interest in golf all worked in our favour. Perhaps we didn't need to be quite so frugal, but it wasn't how it felt at the time.  Then in 2021 we got on with more things like a normal year, but remained in fear of future lockdowns leaving us in limbo we remained frugal, and things turned out financially well as there were no lockdowns after all.  This now gives the Board some confidence to spend a little.  Our reserves are there for two reasons - to protect us against disaster, and to save for investment in the site.  Now the latter threat is receeding (we hope) we can move to cautious investment.

We aren't going mad though - this investment is still frugal - we are looking for a second hand replacement mower, rather than a new one (so £10,000 rather than £45,000 (yes that is what a mower can cost and we have four different types)).   We have also allocated some funds to work on the new building project.  So far we have done everything we can with volunteer time - but there comes a moment when you do need to pay for professional help. 

Money has been assigned to deal with potholes on the driveway and car park, to improve storage facilities in the compound and to replace our computer server which will run out of support in the next 12 months.  As you'd expect we will also be investing in the fabric of the golf course and buying in mature trees until our tree nursery can yield its first offspring for the park. We also have budget for some replacement dog waste bins and some new cleaning equipment for the Pavilion.  The Board has also decided to keep printing our newsletter rather than photocopying it.  This started as a pandemic measure, but now we are used to a better quality publication and we can included more fabulous photos, we are going to keep it.  Our increase in membership numbers makes that economically viable too. 

None of these things are "sexy" we know - well some people find mowers exciting, which means they are unlikely to secure grant funding, but they are all important to us as a site and an organisation to keep up standards and safety.  One cut back will be that we will return to having Volunteer Thank You Night at the Pavilion.  It was fabulous to have it at Lightwoods House in 2021 to give everyone extra space and a big thank you for lockdown help, but it was only financially do-able because Jonathan's very generously provided the food as a gift - an event like that every year is really beyond our means and we do have our own building - even if it is a little more homely!

People power

The second aspect the Board has to consider is what we have the capacity to deliver with our staff and volunteer resources. Our staff numbers and hours are pretty fixed and much work is routine and are formed by day to day activities needed for maintenance and management.  This means any additional projects that need managing or need physical labour have to be carefully considered to come to a balance. Caution is also built in here, for example, if we are successful in our bid for funding to develop designs for our new building, that would need managing and would mean little extra management capacity for anything else and we don’t want to overcommit. Our volunteering workforce may be a little more fluid – but again it isn’t infinite and we have to be careful because it is rare that projects or activities are purely dependent on volunteer time – they can have a knock on effect for staff or finances – and just like staff, we could end up with one key volunteer being overwhelmed. We also have to be aware that crucial projects shouldn’t be totally dependent on a single volunteer – as if we lost that volunteer to a new area, or a new interest, we could end up with something half finished.

We will be piloting a photography/site project which will hopefully benefit the site long term and involve a new group of volunteers - in fact we have no doubt about that - it is being piloted simply because we have concerns it may become an admin nightmare.  We will review after a year,

We also need to look for new volunteers able to support visits from corporate groups.  This is a job that 15 years ago was done by me, but as my time became pressed a number of volunteers became the meeter greeters which allowed us to expand the number of groups we could support.  But we have lost some of these volunteers and they have not been replaced and we are becoming ever more popular, without doing any publicity to find new companies.  It is horrible to have to turn volunteer groups down, but that will be the reality in 2022 unless we find more people able to take on this special role.

We know that the Trust will never be able to deliver everything directly at Warley Woods and its looks to its community to add to what is on offer at Warley Woods.  Everything we can help support get off the ground quickly, with help or advice, or publicity, or even just permission will add to the magic on site.  This year coming up alongside Wild Lives Forest Play, we know there will be a project in May called Woodland Tribe and a visit from Little Queens with costumes and music which will be filmed.  Almost every day we are approached by people with new ideas.

One of the key things that was discussed at the Planning Day was what was to be the legacy of the Wild Warley project.  We have secured an extension to the project until September 2022 because of covid restrictions, but then it will officially end. But we don’t want the work to end.  In particular having had Doug Barber in post has shown us three things - 1) how important an engagement post is, as none of our other posts have this at their core, 2) how perfect it was to have wildlife as the remit for that new engagement role because of its ability to engage so many people at some many levels and because it also involves improving the site itself - not just learning about it and finally, 3) because we thought at the end of Wild Warley would all understand how best to manage the site for wildlife into the future - but actually what it has taught us is how complex the decisions are around this subject and how much we need to keep a professional advisor for us non-specialists. 

For all these reasons I am so pleased that the Board has decided to use some of our reserves to offer Doug a two year extension to his role which will start in October 2022.  He will have a new job description and a new work plan, but it will build on Wild Warley.  I'm even more pleased that he wants to stay!  We were so lucky to find him and I know everyone who has worked with him, whether staff, volunteer or event attendee would agree.  We will need to find funds to unpin that new role and provide resources for him to work with - so we will be designing mini projects and doing grant applications for those.

A snap shot

So this is just a little insight into the kind of things the Board discussed at Planning Day and continues to explore at monthly Trustee meetings.  Practically everyone who comes to a Board Meeting as a guest says afterwards - "I never realised how much went into this - it's mind boggling" and they are right, but I think the complexities of managing Warley Woods are in safe hands.

If you would like to read the full five year plan then it is on our website.  Lots of management information there too with the activity plan itself in Section C towards the back.  

If you would like to be part our future plans, then please consider joining the Community Trust if you aren't already a member.  It is the memberships and donations from local people that enables us to have the confidence to plan ahead for Warley Woods - to ensure it stays fabulous for today, tomorrow and future generations.  If you love it too, please made a difference by supporting the Trust in whatever way you can.  We can't do it without you and with you we can do more.  

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