The charity sector is not always known for its slick business sense, so meeting Annette Mountford, co-founder and chief executive of Family Links, and her business director Gina Hocking is eye-opening.

Eloquent and passionate about the benefits of what they do, they also possess strong business skills with clear ideas on ensuring that the company remains profitable and a going concern.

Family Links promotes emotional literacy, nurturing and relationship skills in families, schools and communities by training health, education and community professionals to run its ten-week nurturing programme.

It was developed in the USA in the 1970s by Dr Stephen Bavolek. Working with abused and neglected children in Colorado, he identified four unhelpful, destructive attitudes that were common to troubled families.

He developed a programme that contained four constructs to counteract these; including self-awareness and self-esteem, appropriate expectations, positive discipline and empathy.

Subsequent research then showed what a powerful tool they were in improving the emotional health of families.

Mrs Mountford co-pioneered the Nurturing Programme in the UK with mental health nurse Yo Davies in 1992, and £30,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They began with the help of Oxford social services.

She explained: “Because I’d been a health visitor, I had professional credibility. The programme proved to be very powerful in the first year and things just grew from there.”

After four years, Mrs Mountford decided to concentrate on training trainers, rather than running groups. She then went on to co-found Family Links in 1997 with Candida Hunt and Rosalind Portman, to make the Nurturing Programme as widely available as possible.

“We thought if we took it into schools through the Personal, Social, Citizenship and Health Education (PSCHE) syllabus, we could teach the children relationship/communication skills,” she said.

It was also a good way to reach children who had little support at home.

Family Links has trained more than 400 schools nationally. Used for the past five years at St Michael’s Church of England School in Oxford, the programme has proved very successful.

In its recent Ofsted report, it was awarded a Grade Two (good) for its personal development and well-being. The report said: “Behaviour in and out of lessons is excellent. Pupils of all backgrounds and cultures have very positive relationships with staff and other pupils.”

This is in part due to the way the programme is used throughout the school.

It consists of different activities for three age groups. All include a ‘circle time’ component, where the children can talk without being judged or belittled.

“The whole-school programme works best when all the staff are trained, including the teaching assistants,” explained PSCHE co-ordinator Mrs Catherine Archard.

“When they are all using the same language throughout the years, there are consistent expectations. It also means the children have an understanding of how PSCHE contributes to their well-being and learning.”

Mrs Mountford is an inspiring entrepreneur, whose energy and vision allies with an awareness of her limitations.

“In charities, founders are usually the clinicians, the charismatic ideas people,” she said.

“My business head was fine until Family Links expanded and then I needed a much sharper business head.”

That head belonged to Mrs Hocking, who came on board three years ago.

Mrs Mountford added: “Gina came at the moment we needed, because there are critical moments in charities’ developments when you can go down the pan if you don’t get business strategies more professionally organised.”

Mrs Hocking already had extensive experience of the charity sector, having worked at Oxfam. She had also worked for the Treasury, so knew how government worked.

Her role was to increase income from training and training materials, so they could decrease their dependence on grants.

This has been largely successful, with turnover increasing by about 60 per cent over the past two years to £750,000, although Mrs Hocking is keen to stress this is down to everyone in the company, not just her.

“In the last financial year, 67 per cent of our income came from selling training and parenting puzzles and other materials used in our training and 33 per cent came from our fundraising,” she explained.

Their target is to get to an 80/20 split within the next five years. Having recognised that charitable foundations like to reward innovation, they are still applying for new projects.

For example, they are currently running pilot Nurturing Programmes in prisons to reduce the large proportion of reoffending that occurs, when a parent is not easily re-integrated into the family.

Although the company has trained more than 2,500 trainers, it also offers a training franchise, to get the Nurturing Programme into as many areas of the country as possible.

This means that in some areas of the country, such as Sunderland, the programme is run entirely independently, although Family Links still makes money from accompanying materials such as handbooks.

The company is currently focusing on consolidating its quality control through a randomised control trial being conducted in Wales, updating its materials and providing ongoing training.

“That is what’s going to make us survive — how well we can manage the quality of our people,” Mrs Hocking explained.

“Once we’ve done that, then we’ll expand again because you can’t stand still.”