Photograph: Left to right – Reedham’s CEO Sarah Smart,  the Rt Reverend Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon, and Chairman of the Board of Management Paul Julius.

On June 12, The Mall will be transformed for its largest ever street party playing host to 10,000 guests. The Patron’s Lunch is a celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s lifetime dedicated to service and patronage of more than 600 charities and organisations across the UK and Commonwealth, on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

Reedham was originally established as the Asylum for Fatherless Children in 1844. It moved to the purpose-built Reedham Orphanage in 1858 near Croydon. When it closed in 1980, the land was sold to fund a trust, which now supports vulnerable children growing up in very difficult circumstances whose families struggle to care for them. The main form of support it offers is a funded place at boarding school, which provides children with the stable and nurturing environment needed to thrive while retaining close links with their family.

We talk to Reedham’s CEO Sarah Smart about the charity’s work and the challenges of running a small charity.

How is your charity helping today’s vulnerable children?

Our founder, Reverend Doctor Andrew Reed, like many Victorian philanthropists, saw caring for disadvantaged children as being very important. But he also saw that a good education was vital too, enabling the young person to make their own way in life. Reed said: “A good education is a fortune that a child can never spend”, and I believe that we have reinterpreted these ideals for the 21st century. Reedham works with cases where the parent’s ability to care for their child is often very low. Of the children we support now, 58% have a parent with a long standing disability and 41% have a parent with a serious mental health problem, often with a history of drug and alcohol misuse.

How did you become Reedham’s head?

Throughout my career I’ve had a particular interest in vulnerable or disadvantaged children. I’ve spent pretty much all of it working in education, where I specialised in personal social health education (PSHE), which is concerned with supporting the development of a child’s wellbeing and how schools can promote this. About nine years ago, I had the opportunity to manage the development of a new charity with government funding [the PSHE Association]. It was very rewarding but became an all-consuming occupation for me. After I left, I knew I wanted to do something that would be of direct benefit to vulnerable children but I only wanted to commit to a part-time hours, which is what the post Reedham offers.

I was primarily attracted by the opportunity to develop the charity, which had stayed pretty much the same since 1980, when it became a charitable trust.

What have you done since taking over?

I’ve been here now for 20 months and during that time I’ve overseen a complete rebranding, developed a business plan and agreed a new strategic approach with the board of management. We now have strategic aims and objectives, as well as performance indicators and success measures. I’ve worked with the trustees – who are very supportive – to clarify what our core purpose is and, crucially, how we know how well we’re doing and what difference we are making to children’s lives.

Our whole application and assessment procedure has changed. To help us decide whether a child is eligible for, and would benefit from, our support we now insist on relevant, robust, supporting information, including a report from the child’s current school. We also undertake a home visit to meet the parent (or parents) and child, using a process based on the common assessment framework used in professional children’s services. The cases are now weighted in terms of need, and the decisions about which children to support are made by staff members with relevant professional expertise, rather than by a trustee panel. Trustees are now responsible for the quality assurance of our processes and procedures.

We have also created two windows of time during which families can apply for a grant-funded boarding placement. This has enabled us to give priority to the neediest cases. Previously, applications were dealt with as and when they came in, which meant we might not have had money to help a really needy case if it came in later in the year.

We are raising our profile and awareness of what we do among education and social care professionals. As a result, we are now meeting families who previously might never have considered the idea of boarding school as a way to help their child. These families tend to score much higher on the needs scale than many families we’ve previously helped who found a boarding school themselves and then approached Reedham for financial help.

What’s the bravest decision you’ve made as its CEO?

Historically, Reedham has worked with a number of other charities to fund a child’s place at boarding school, when the school had been chosen by the family and the child offered a place. Essentially, our support was simply making a grant towards a package of funding. Working to this model meant that we learned very little about the child’s progress and the impact of the placement on the child after we had made the grant. After conducting a rigorous review of our children’s services and presenting the findings to the board of management, the trustees are now persuaded that Reedham should proceed with a more proactive approach: receiving referrals via professionals and sole-funding a child’s placement in partnership with the chosen school to enable us to keep in closer contact with the school, child and family and monitor the progress of the child.

This model – the Reedham Foundationers – means supporting fewer children, which is a risk. Potential donors might think that we support too few children. But my hope and expectation is that, in working this way, we will gather compelling evidence to show the benefit to children and how it helps to improve their life outcomes. We believe that by focusing on fewer children we can invest far more resources in the child, their family and the school, and thereby ensure that the boarding opportunity that we offer, together with additional care and support, is effective in changing or transforming a vulnerable child’s life.

Reedham Foundationer costs amount to around £105,000 over seven years per child. We are learning with each new case that our more hands-on approach often leads to the identification of other needs which carry a cost. Some of our families cannot afford to buy their children’s PE kit, or pay their travel costs to and from school each term. In some cases, we need to pay for the children to have counselling support.

Our new approach is much more expensive, and the trust’s fund is no longer sufficient, so we have embarked on a sustainable fundraising strategy for the first time in our history. I’m realistic that paying for a vulnerable child to go to boarding school isn’t probably at the top of most people’s priorities for charitable giving, but smaller donors are supportive in helping to buy specific items: £150 will buy a child’s PE kit, £5 will buy a cake for a child who would otherwise not get one on their birthday.

What are your biggest challenges as head of a small charity?

I face the same challenge as many part-time workers, in that I’m trying to fit what is pretty much a full-time position into part-time hours.

As the CEO of a very small team – made up of four part-timers – I wear a lot of different hats. I’m the HR person; I speak at every trust meeting and also take the minutes; I do a lot of the marketing and communications work, work closely with the children’s worker on cases, and even light building maintenance. I’m also much more involved in fundraising now.

Fundraising is a real challenge. There is a select group of donors that are involved in our field, and we have made a big push to develop contacts among those trusts and foundations that might give us grants. We’ve also approached larger organisations to help us with the investment we need to assess the social impact of our interventions.

My fundraising experience is primarily in applying for government funding so this is a new world for me. I’m on a steep, but exciting, learning curve.

What are your ambitions for Reedham?

My hope is that in time, as we collect more evidence, we will influence the national policy debate about how children in need are cared for. It will take time, I know, as most local authorities currently don’t consider boarding as an option for vulnerable children. But I think if we can gather credible evidence that this type of intervention can and does lead to better outcomes for children than either fostering or going into care then that will add a new dimension to the debate about what can be done to best help these children.

Placing a vulnerable child at a boarding school looks expensive but doesn’t cost more than fostering or care and, most important, the life outcomes for the child are hugely better.

Moreover, in the long term there is likely to be a significant saving to society in terms of possible social service and judicial intervention and benefit payments. Two of the families we work with, for example, have told us that we have helped prevent their children from becoming involved in crime and the youth justice system.

What is the biggest difference between running a small charity and a small business?

If you’ve set up your own business you might not be responsible to anyone else for your decisions or actions, whereas a charity manager’s level of accountability can be more demanding.

At first, I found the reporting structure challenging in respect of being able to get on with the development aspect of my job. In my first year at Reedham, there were over a dozen trustee and trustee committee meetings. As we work only three days a week that was broadly the equivalent of a meeting every other week. In order to progress the development work I frequently had to work an extra day a week. Now as the trustees have greater confidence in the operational decisions and procedures, we now have fewer meetings. My ambition is to gain trustee support for just four meetings annually, with the flexibility to call other meetings as necessary.

What tips would you offer people thinking of setting up a charity?

I couldn’t have felt more passionate and committed to making the first charity I managed a success. But it became an all-consuming role: I was working round the clock as well as bringing up three children. It’s very rewarding for me to see the charity thriving, but that success came at some personal cost. My health suffered significantly. So I think it’s vital to have a mentor, a trusted colleague with whom you sit down regularly to review and discuss your priorities and time management, and who can act as a critical friend.

Another tip is to learn to delegate or to say no. A good friend and colleague taught me the “three Ds: Do, Delegate, Dump”. It’s likely that, at least in the early stages, you will do most of the tasks yourself, but there’s a danger that you can take on too much. I was so concerned about creating a good reputation for my charity that I wanted to put my personal touch on just about everything. But you can’t do everything and it’s important to be clear about what matters most. A strategic and operation plan is critical.

I also learned that you can become so wrapped up in your new charity that you go at a terrific pace to ensure that everything gets done. But, if you have a staff – even if it’s one other person – you must make sure you bring them along with you. The danger is that if you’re shooting ahead at 80 mph you may leave them behind. You really need to take the time to invest in your team members, to keep them up to date with what is happening and hear their voices.

Finally, your charity needs to have a “why?” It’s very likely that there will be other charities or organisations already operating in that area of work, so you need to be clear about the particular purpose of yours. With so many charities competing for funding these days you need to think about what makes your charity distinctive, what gap will it fill and how will it add value in its field of work.

Find out more about the Reedham’s Children’s Trust