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27th July 2018

The Ancient Tree Forum – The Next 20 Years

The ATF charity was created in 1998, which makes it 20 years old this year. But we are not celebrating just yet. The ATF group was created a few years earlier and 25th anniversary celebrations will follow at the appropriate time. For now we are focusing on building an organisation that can survive and flourish in the years ahead.

The ATF has grown from an informal collective of experts and tree enthusiasts into an influential, complex network that spans the UK and Europe. Our influence on veteran tree policy across the UK and Europe continues to grow, an example being the recent added protection for Ancient Trees in the National Planning Policy Framework. New ATF regional groups are developing all the time, and field meetings across the country are now frequent. However, delivering all this activity with only two part time staff requires volunteer trustees to carry huge responsibilities. This is neither desirable nor sustainable in the long term and there is a need to reduce the risk to the ATF associated with over reliance on a few key volunteers. Additionally, as we have grown, accountability and decision making has become more complex. The former structure of twice yearly board meetings followed by an open meeting is now too infrequent and cumbersome.

To address these problems the ATF has embarked upon a restructuring process to improve its finances and governance. We hope a new fund raising strategy will enable us to target the funds we need to bring in more staff. In particular, we need a senior manager to take responsibility for all operational matters, freeing trustees to focus on longer term strategy. We have also moved towards more regular board meetings with an executive group of trustees meeting monthly on Skype. The aim is to enable the ATF to participate fully in ancient tree related projects and policy, in a way that volunteers alone cannot.

Included in this process of change is a need to create a transparent and efficient internal structure for communication and decision making. A properly financed ATF charity will have staff managed by a CEO who reports to the board of trustees. Those trustees need experience in management, accounting, fund-raising, law, as well as old trees. We have therefore brought in two new trustees. Andy Green is the ATF Treasurer and has a background in finance and policy. Helen Black is a very experienced manager in the charity sector and has helped with training ATF trustees in the past. With a balanced, knowledgeable board of trustees supporting staff, experienced ATF experts can be free up to pursue debate, teaching and research on ancient and veteran trees. This way the ATF can deploy its resources where they have the greatest impact on protecting the trees we were created to care for.

The final piece of the jigsaw is the forum itself. The ATF is a forum and whilst the demands of a charity require a fairly generic structure, the ATF forum remains the heart of our unique organisation. The forum is where we come together to discuss and value our ancient trees, be that at a regional field meeting or the national summer conference.

None of us want to lose openness and accessibility, but the former open meetings twice a year lacked clarity as to their function and membership. We are therefore currently consulting on the creation of an ATF Council, a representative body that can hold the values of the ATF, as well as being a forum for discussion and decision making. The board of trustees will always retain legal responsibility for the ATF charity but ATF Council will be a place where representatives from regional groups, partner organisations (eg Woodland Trust, National Trust, Natural England, Forestry Commission, etc) and ATF working groups (eg policy, Wood Pasture, Pests & Diseases, etc.) report and discuss ATF business. The idea is to create a space for essential tree related technical and policy discussion that is separate from the administrative and strategic process of running the charity. Obviously the intention being that views and decisions of ATF Council inform and steer the direction of the charity over the years to come.

Creating ATF Council is a slightly more a complex business than it might first appear. We want it to be representative and not exclusive, but small enough (no more than 30 people) to function. A few of the issues include: who is a member of the ATF; do members elect council; does council elect trustees; how does council relate to the trust? We have ideas but do not have answers to all those questions yet. We will therefore be consulting widely. Practical suggestions are very welcome. The ATF will continue to evolve over the next 20 years and our hope is that those years will be as vibrant, successful and exciting as the last.

Posted by: Julia Nicholas

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