Charity Client Focus – Jon Riley (Chief Operating Officer at Seven Stories)
The home for children’s literature, Seven Stories’ mission is to save, celebrate and share Britain’s rich literary heritage for children, with a visitor centre in the Ouseburn which attracts over 70,000 visitors each year.
Jon Riley joined Seven Stories in 2014 as Finance and Operations Director before becoming Chief Operating Officer. We discussed with him the great work the charity does in the local area, the main challenges they face and their aspirations for the future.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you became involved in the charity sector?
I studied Ecology at University and followed a career in Wildlife Conservation, and ended up working as a Project Manager for Wildlife Conservation in Indonesia for 8 years. When working here, I became increasingly interested in the financial aspects of my role, and ended up working for charities on the north Northumberland coast when I returned to the UK, leading me to work for an accountancy business as a social enterprise that focuses on supporting other smaller charities. From there, I studied the management accountancy route through CIMA, and I’ve been working for Seven Stories for the past 3 years.
Seven Stories was set up in 1996, with the centre opening to the public in 2005, could you expand on how it has developed in the years since?
The organisation has expanded in a wide variety of ways since 2005. Every year, we install two temporary exhibitions that can focus on a particular author, such as Michael Foreman or Michael Morpurgo, or a topic such as Bears! or Comics. What is less well-known about Seven Stories is that we also house a collection of original drawings, artwork, manuscripts and other documents, and this volume of material is ever expanding from names such as Enid Blyton, Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pulman and Judith Kerr.
Another aspect of our work that has developed over the past 12 years is the work we do away from the visitor centre. We tour our exhibitions in other museums across the UK, and are currently ‘on tour’ in London and Kent. Our education programme is another aspect of our work that has grown considerably and includes doing outreach with children from nursery through to further education.
What is the greatest motivation for you and the team at Seven Stories?
I think we are all motivated in different ways, but the common thread for all our staff is the opportunity to work somewhere with a heart and to feel that there is a real purpose behind coming to work each day, beyond earning a living. For me personally I’m probably one of the few people who is more interested in making sure the nuts and bolts of the Charity work well. I feel I can use my knowledge and experience to make sure the Charity runs smoothly and that my colleagues have the resources to do the interesting and important work.
What has been the biggest challenge faced during your time as COO?
Like all Charities there is an ongoing challenge balancing the books, but I think the biggest challenge for me personally has been to bring in new procedures and approaches across the organisation. This has covered everything from financial procedures, to looking at operational issues such as health and safety, data protection or safeguarding, or even the way we tender and contract our exhibition design contracts to manage risk better. In part this reflects that Seven Stories is maturing as an organisation and we need to move away from a short-term perspective to start thinking where we want the organisation to be in five or ten years’ times.
Many distinguished names in children’s literature such as Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pulman CBE are Patrons of Seven Stories. Could you expand a little on their support and influence?
One of our challenges is location. The publishing industry is very London-centric and we’re one of a small number of National museums in northern England. This means that we often have to shout louder to get our message heard and our supporters and patrons help us to do this. The support they offer comes in many forms, from attending one of our fundraising or promotional events, donating artworks or manuscripts to our Collection, or acting as critical friends.
We have also welcomed a wide range of professional authors to Seven Stories, and in the few years that I have been here, I have met Eoin Colfer, Oliver Jeffers and David Walliams.
Could you expand a little on the service you receive from UNW?
UNW was appointed as our auditor in 2016, so we’ve just signed off our second set of accounts working with them, and the team has expressed their pleasure that the audit fieldwork has been more detailed and thorough since Anne and her team have been working with us. I like the fact we can’t be complacent and it has fed through to strong internal procedures.
We have also done a great deal on changing the presentation of the group accounts and revising a number of accounting policies relating to our assets, particularly the centre and collection. It’s been a lengthy process but I feel we’ve worked well with UNW and it’s great to get high quality advice throughout.
Seven Stories is currently an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, how has this funding supported the centre’s future aspirations?
One of the main risks facing the Charity is our split site operation – the team works across three properties with rented office space close to the visitor centre in Ouseburn, but the Collection is housed in a rented unit in Gateshead. There’s no doubt we have to address this challenge if we are to continue to grow in the future. It won’t be easy, but our wider strategy is to develop a partnership approach to finding a long-term solution and this is where the continued support of the Arts Council will be important.
We’re working through our Vital North Partnership, which forms a strategic and practical collaboration between Seven Stories, Newcastle University and the City of Newcastle to create a world-class centre of excellence for children’s literature in Newcastle upon Tyne. Our goal is that by 2025 we will have developed a centre for excellence for children’s literature, giving a permanent and accessible home to the art form putting book and story at the heart of every North East childhood.
Finally, what is the best piece of advice you have received during your career?
One thing that has stuck with me was during a discussion with someone I managed on a project. The project was ending and we were discussing how things had gone and she said I was the best boss she’d ever had. I thought she was joking, but she was – surprisingly – serious. She said it was because I let her get on with it, but she knew exactly what she was expected to do, and she knew I was there if she needed help. That really struck me and is how I’ve tried to manage my teams ever since: establish the boundaries, let them get on with it, but be there to sort out the mistakes!
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