Charity Awards 2024

How Clic Sargent saved £1m with a business improvement programme 

Cancer charity Clic Sargent has just completed a business improvement programme, cutting £1m from its cost base. Lorraine Clifton outlines how it was done.

Clic Sargent is a young charity with a long history, formed in 2005 following a successful merger. Last year we supported more than 6,600 children and young people and their families.

In 2011 we set ourselves a challenge to grow our services, income and influence in a planned and sustainable way, so that we could meet more of the needs of the children and young people with cancer who rely on us.

But in late 2011, we found ourselves facing continued pressure in a challenging economic climate, and located a budget deficit of £1m. We faced a stark choice – cut back and stop investing in growth, or reduce costs.

We chose to continue our commitment to growth and to remove £1m from our cost base without cutting services or reducing capacity, by embarking on a business improvement programme to increase effectiveness and efficiency.

To help us innovate and adapt – in order to achieve our demanding target – we used Lean Six Sigma, a business methodology for reducing waste, which is based on techniques first developed by Motorola in the 1980s.

Better by Design – as our business improvement programme was called – focused on driving performance, improving quality, working more efficiently and making sure every aspect of our operations reflected our commitment to doing our best for the children, young people and families we support.

Avoiding salami slicing

We approached business improvement with a view to achieving readiness for growth, and wanted to avoid arbitrary cost-cutting or top-slicing. In practice, this meant adopting more effective working methods, shifting the culture of teams and embedding a commitment to continuous improvement. 

Although our key business processes had evolved and adapted since our merger, they hadn’t been fully reviewed. We needed to design business processes that were not only effective and efficient in the present, but also fit for the future. In order to be able to support the growth outlined in our strategy we would need to become even more innovative, forward thinking, adaptable and efficient.

Achieving £1m in net recurring savings (roughly 8 per cent of our non-service delivery cost base at the time) without reducing capacity seemed a huge task: one that would take time, resources and specialist skills. We gave ourselves two years and we have achieved, and exceeded, our £1m target. Along the way we’ve learned a lot about how to go about a programme like this, both the benefits and the potential pitfalls.

Change is hard and we didn’t know exactly how much tolerance there was within the organisation, our cost base, or our existing plans to make improvements of this scale in only two years.

But we were – and remain – confident in our organisational strategy, and felt that the benefits outweighed the risks.

We made a strategic choice to undertake the programme, believing there was scope for doing more, and merit in a commitment to continual improvement.

Many organisations wishing to make business process improvements hire consultants with expertise in change and process improvement methodologies.

But we believed it was important to empower our staff to identify and make their own improvements, so that the changes weren’t imposed on them but were driven from within the organisation. We chose to equip our staff with the skills and expertise needed to identify and make improvements themselves – the foundation of continuous improvement.

First, we clarified the scope of what we wanted to achieve. Then we developed a methodology that would enable us to achieve recurring savings, improvements to quality, and reductions in wasteful working. We also put in place a governance structure to oversee the programme.

Throughout this process we sought the views of colleagues and corporate partners in the private sector in order to access their wealth of expertise in this area.

Improving ways of working

We then set about improving our ways of working. We made improvements to a wide range of areas, including our management of stock and logistics; processing gift aid claims and income more broadly; business travel; purchasing and procurement; operational banking; staff recruitment; and VAT processing (see figure 1).

Together, our staff achieved £1.1m in recurring annual financial improvements and delivered 57 process improvement solutions.

But the journey to completing the successful programme wasn’t easy. Along the way, we learned a few things about how to make a programme of this nature successful.

For example, we needed to achieve this without derailing our existing operating plans, so we focused on winning and maintaining commitment from staff and worked hard to balance priorities.

When we first began talking about a change programme, many staff expressed curiosity and enthusiasm, seeing it as a vehicle for making changes they themselves had been talking about for – in some cases – years. The speed of the process, structured approach and senior sponsorship really appealed.

But there was also anxiety. Some people were sceptical: was this just a cost-cutting programme in disguise?

In response, we made sure our internal communications were well-designed, frequent and gave a strong and consistent message.

Particularly at the beginning, our messaging reinforced the fact that the business improvement programme was not about reducing staff numbers – we were focused on growth.

Achieving staff ownership
Reflecting on our experience, I think the inclusive and flexible approach we took, our reliance on data and metrics to support decision-making, the pace of rapid improvement, and the ability to see and feel improvements quickly were all key to the programme’s acceptance and ownership by staff.

Aside from achieving our £1m financial target and improving our processes, the programme brought us a number of other important benefits.

We were able to see improvements in performance and accountability because our approach to the projects encouraged and supported staff to achieve the best possible results, whatever their role. We also cultivated a transparency and integrity of process that staff really embraced.

This enabled staff to support each other more fully, and also to hold each other to account in their day-to-day working practices.

The programme made it easier to challenge assumptions and let go of the old ways of doing things. This has made a fundamental difference to the way the charity makes decisions.

Following the changes we made, we now rely even more on data and robust evidence to test and justify why we need to approach our work in a particular way.

Staff definitely have a heightened awareness and deeper understanding of how good metrics support us, rather than there simply being a bureaucratic need to report to senior management.

Having now completed and closed down the programme, we’ve reviewed the operational sustainability of improvements made, making sure the changes we’ve implemented continue to be effective, and assessing whether each one has met its objective. We’re determined to maintain the improvements that have been made.

Continuous improvement
Our challenge now is finding ways to embed continuous improvement.

Our staff have shown the organisation and themselves how much they can achieve and how rigorously and rapidly they can resolve issues in their working practices, and we want this to be a part of everyday working.

A key aspect of embedding the changes is to further develop our staff. So many have picked up new skills and become more effective, enhancing their sense of job satisfaction as a result of developing a shared understanding of our structures, systems and processes.

We need to build on this and make sure we keep staff engaged with working as effectively and efficiently as possible.

We set out with limited resources, skills and time to achieve our ambitions and we have been on a rewarding journey of transformation – always with a view to doing the right thing for the children, young people and their families who rely on us for support.

Our achievements show that this level of savings and positive change is definitely possible using a business-focused methodology in a charity context.

The programme’s success has helped us to see ourselves as innovative and adaptable – more confident about how we run ourselves and deliver our services.

We’ve shown we are capable of rising to, and meeting, the challenge of complex organisational change and development.

I’m now even more certain than ever that if you ignore inefficient and broken processes, in order to focus on more visible priorities, you are in effect allowing these problems to hold you back from growth.

The main areas in which we made improvements

Stock management in shops

Annual saving: £141,000

What we improved: We standardised our operating procedures, further developing our IT tools so that we could control stock better and reduce manual working.

We centralised fundraising fulfilment, rationalised the distribution of unsold stock between shops, developed a new van rota, and standardised fundraising packs, so that they are more cost-effective and easy to compile.

Gift aid

Annual saving: £123,000

What we improved: We now claim far more gift aid (eg from auctions and corporate partners).

We streamlined the technical and very complex aspects of processing gift aid, reviewing and amending product codes and moving manual processes onto our CRM database.

Operational banking

Annual saving: £31,500

What we improved: We improved the security and efficiency of our banking, and made the most of opportunities to earn more from this by moving from six banks to one banking partner.

Purchasing and procurement

Annual saving: £141,000

What we improved: We changed our practices to buy more in bulk – as an organisation rather than individual teams – and optimised our negotiating power, using a preferred supplier list and rewarding suppliers that provide best value. We now have a purchasing and procurement policy, a step-by-step guide for our tendering process, and a ‘Working with our suppliers’ page on our website which reduces time wasted from would-be suppliers’ cold-calling.


Annual saving: £91,000

What we improved: We found that staff used a number of processes to arrange travel, with many booking it for themselves at the last minute. A surprisingly large number travelled for regular meetings.

We introduced standardised procedures, reduced the number of meetings that required travel, introduced video-conference technology, amended our travel and expenses policy, and made sure those who travelled frequently used a corporate credit card.

Income processing

Annual saving: £232,000

What we improved: We redesigned income processing end-to-end, created a new centralised team; redirected all income-related post to one location; began encouraging supporters to bank income themselves where appropriate; made it easier for supporters to give electronically; and revised our retail trading processes.

We also redesigned income coding structures and ‘mistake-proofed’ the processes surrounding attribution of income.

Centralising income processing was cost-neutral, but it freed up 0.7 per cent of the capacity of our fundraisers to increase the time they spend on fundraising.

VAT review

Annual saving: £180,000

What we improved: A professional firm helped us assess VAT reliefs available to us and carried out an internal audit.

Incremental improvements we made included streamlining, automating and ‘mistake-proofing’ our VAT process, and redesigning it so that it was capable of dealing with new income streams.

Company cars

Annual saving: £45,000

What we improved: Rather than replace our ageing fleet of company cars, we provided staff who’d had these with alternative means, including personal loans.

In addition we increased business mileage reimbursement rates for all staff, in line with HMRC thresholds.

Staff recruitment

Annual saving: £101,000

What we are improving: We put in place improvements to recruitment and other resourcing practices, including driving down the cost of recruitment advertising by monitoring the effectiveness of various channels; improving collaboration between HR and recruiting managers; and standardising and simplifying processes for resourcing different types of vacancies.