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Yateley Industries for the Disabled was established in the 1930’s and was originally a textile factory specialising in block printing which was run by disabled women. It was founded by Jessie Brown MBE, a trailblazer who trained at the Slade School of Art in addition to training as an orthopaedic nurse.

The factory was revered in the mid-20th century and produced many beautiful garments and fabrics — all printed in the factory by disabled employees (now both male and female).

As time went by, block printing became financially unviable. Today the factory is still based in its original building in Yateley, Hampshire, and provides employment, training and accommodation for over 60 disabled people (and 10 non-disabled people) who work across the factory, estate, community hub and community café.

Sheldon McMullan, Chief Executive of Yateley Industries joins us today to discuss the power of “persevilience” and how purpose and meaning motivate staff to make a difference.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career.

Having grown up in Northern Ireland in the 90s, I witnessed first-hand the power and impact of really good youth work.

After moving to England for university, I settled in Surrey and started my career as a youth arts worker. That started a twenty-year journey of working at all levels in many different-sized targeted youth organisations covering outreach, youth clubs, housing, homelessness and education.

I have never had a strong desire to be a CEO – as I told the panel at Yateley during my first interview! I have known some exceptional CEOs, but my view had perhaps been tarnished by a few who seemed out of touch and too distant from the work and their teams. The Yateley interview panel assured me that the role of CEO would range from policy writing to scrubbing toilets and I was sold!

By the end of my third interview, I had fallen in love and knew I would be bereft if I didn’t get the job. Luckily, they chose me and I am now in the best job I’ve ever had.

How does your charity define resilience, and why is this critical to your mission?

A word I have thought about a lot recently is “persevilience” – a blend of perseverance and resilience.

In the charity world, perseverance keeps moving us forward even when every step feels like a struggle. It’s the mindset that keeps us going, despite (or even because of) the many challenges we face. Resilience, on the other hand, is our ability to bounce back from setbacks, and navigate the unexpected twists and turns of the journey.

Stubbornness and the ability to endure is also a McMullan clan trait, so I am clearly comfortable in this space! However, to me, persevilience is also about the effect of becoming stronger because of the struggle. Yateley is the epitome of persevilience having been days from closure at points in the last five years, to a charity now that is heading towards the bright future it deserves.

How does your charity collaborate with other local organisations or businesses to strengthen community ties?

After decades in the doldrums (partly caused by commercial ineptitude and then a criminal General Manager who defrauded the charity), we reopened our doors to the community and our partners in late 2022 and have been inundated with help, love and support from individuals, businesses and organisations ever since.

Our Community Hub was borne out of the desire of the wider community to use our spaces again and reclaim our place as a hub of the local community. Partnership is a cornerstone of how we work at Yateley and we continue to reconnect and build on those relationships as well as forge new ones as we move forward.

What are some of the most significant obstacles you've encountered, and how have you overcome them to continue serving your community?

The greatest obstacle we have faced is the damage that 15 years of criminal financial mismanagement has had (and continues to have) on the charity. In short, we need to find £120k each year on top of our operating costs in order to service the huge £1.5M deficit in the pension fund that we inherited.

However, thanks to the efforts of our amazing trustees and some incredible funders who really believe in our potential, we are now able to focus on growth and not just survival. The road ahead is long and it will be 10 years and more that it will take to undo the worst of the damage – but it is a challenge that the team and I are excited to tackle.

Can you share an example of a creative solution or program your charity has implemented to address a community need or overcome a challenge?

When I started, I asked the disabled staff and residents what they wanted from me. They wanted a return of their spaces to socialise, come together and learn new things. The wider Yateley community said they wanted a return of YI being a space for the community.

The answer was simple. We used our vacant spaces to create a community hub, which also hosts a community café and spaces for hire. We protect 20% of the time in the Hub for social activities dedicated to our staff and residents only. The Hub not only provides vital spaces for all communities but provides employment for our disabled staff and residents too.

How do you ensure your charity remains financially sustainable?

We have only just introduced a fundraising function in the last year and it has been incredibly successful. We are riding high on the novelty factor at the moment and also the fact that we seem to be a well-kept secret but have a very interesting and rich history dating back to the 1930’s.

Regarding financial sustainability, there is a strong focus on maximising the potential of our commercial endeavours (café, space hire and supported factory) as well as modernising and expanding our accommodation offer to not only help more disabled adults live independent lives but to generate more income to support our overall mission.

“I have found that people resonate with a cause that gives them purpose and meaning… When candidates walk through the door and we explain our mission, they want to be a part of it. Some of our recent staff have even sought us out on reputation alone!”

What are your hopes and aspirations for the future of your charity and the communities you serve?

My bold ambition is that Yateley Industries is regarded as an international centre of excellence for the way we work together with disabled people.

However, there is a lot of work required to get us there, so I will settle for a national centre of excellence in the next ten years!

Our founder, Jessie, imagined an organisation where disabled people could live, work and play – just like everyone else – but still be able to participate and serve in the wider community too. The next ten years will see us embark on a mission to modernise our accommodation offer, improve the look and feel of the overall estate, and provide employment to at least 100 disabled people.

What benefits are there in operating as a small charity, particularly for your service users?

We can move at speed, without the unnecessary ‘politics’ and endless cycles of approval that larger charities can find themselves in. Also, this is the first charity I have ever worked at that has no desire to relentlessly expand and take over the world. We know who we are, what we do and who we serve and we just want to be the best at that. Our staff and residents now know that everything we do here is about them, not without them.

How do you attract and retain staff in a competitive market? Are there different development opportunities that working in a small charity can provide?

I have asked myself that question for over 20 years. The answer, as anyone who works in this sector knows, is that it isn’t about the money!!

I have found that people resonate with a cause that gives them purpose and meaning. Yateley Industries is a magical place and after just three visits, I was under its spell and saw its enormous potential. Just being here and interacting with the team motivates me to make our vision a reality. When candidates walk through the door and we explain our mission, they want to be a part of it. Some of our recent staff have even sought us out on reputation alone!

Small charities give you growth and stretch opportunities like no other because you need to gain an understanding of so many facets of the organisation in order to achieve your personal goals, so it naturally brings about development and growth.  A courageous leader has to give people the space and tools to deliver their part and contribute to the wider goal. Strong teams value autonomy but expect to be held accountable.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from your experience as a CEO of a small charity?

Trust your instincts. Work in partnership. Bring people with you. Invite challenge.

I thought I didn’t want to be a CEO but I am so glad that I am one. I realise now that I didn’t want to be ‘that CEO’ but I have always enjoyed being a leader – as odd and uncomfortable as that thought might be for me to say out loud. I really enjoy being the facilitator who gives people space and authority to bring the vision to life. I have always enjoyed being innovative and nurturing the talents of others – plus I am aware of my weaknesses and hire people to add strength to those areas.

Bill Yuksel is our Head of Not for Profit Appointments, with over 35 CEO appointments across England, Wales and Scotland. With a true passion for social change and a drive to match motivated candidates with organisations where they can make a difference, please email Bill or connect with him on Linkedin to find the leaders you need for your community foundation.