In the context of these unprecedented times I find myself becoming quite nostalgic. I like to recall the golden era of unbridled fundraising growth when the Charity I worked for, evolved into a household brand, creating enormous impact on every-day lives. Those halcyon days which predated charity scandals, recession and COVID, weren’t just built on serendipity. Our success came from careful design, strong leadership and true innovation. But when the growth rate fell from the heady double-digit heights, I recall an awakening that required new thinking about how we needed to radically reorganise ourselves. If not, the slowing down of income would dramatically impact on the growing ambition of our mission. So perhaps some parallels with today’s dilemma.
I recall leading a programme of change whereby the goal was simply to maximise the flow of income to the programme, so that we could deliver our vision to double our impact. Along the way we also wanted to create synergies between functions, design a clear supporter journey and move away from product led to donor led fundraising. At the time it was radical; the move to a matrix model obscured the clarity of “in line” decision making and felt counter-intuitive, but was probably the most successful change we made. We swept away duplicate functions, we adopted a single approach to insight/evidence-based analysis, we clarified capability and created centres of excellence. We prioritised investment through a transparent product hierarchy and adopted collective accountability, thus removing the siloed mentality that had dogged us for years. The results were impressive, and notably the strategy removed much of the emotion from our decision making. Business principles were there for all to see, and to hold us to account. Naturally, there were casualties. As activities were axed, so crowns slipped, egos got dented but more sadly roles were removed. But we remodelled and we grew, and the mission was in safe hands. More parallels then, with the mounting number of charities currently recognising the need to remodel.
But can these parallels really help charities today with the world having moved on so dramatically? Well, many of the principles of change remain. Refocus, consolidation, being mission led and not flinching from making the hard decisions are as important as ever.
I think we could have been more successful had we taken braver decisions and perhaps that’s where the greatest lessons lie.
The innovation work should have been given longer to prove its worth. Success should have not been judged by the metrics of the day but by our knowing that tomorrows would be different. We should never have retained the polite and respectful distance from the beneficiary and programme deliverers but should have adopted a seamless integrated way of working.
But because we weren’t staring down the barrel of a gun, we lacked the urgency that survival of the current crisis depends upon.
Other dimensions were also different. The culture was much of its time; where leaders enjoyed a free rein with less bridled authority, power and influence was essentially based on knowledge, experience and keeping the governors happy. Risk taking was encouraged but within a tight framework that didn’t overly rock the boat. Creativity and opportunity were plentiful but viewed more as a luxury than a necessity. None of which by the way, am I advocating.
And whilst market conditions are dramatically different today and subtle changes in leadership have emerged, I see nervous leaders in danger of tightening their grip precisely at the time when they should be loosening it.
We all know that without the right type of leadership positive change is unlikely.
Narrative is critical and the way it’s curated essential. The story must be clear from the top but be built upon through every layer. Good leaders recognise that brilliance is buried within an organisation, it seldom sits at the top. But this can feel counterintuitive, and therefore serves to make a good for argument for coaching. A third party perspective, encouragement for nerve holding and nurturing the narrative are each ways a good coach can help and support the leadership agenda.
And when I coach fundraising directors and charity CEO’s today, my instinct is to start with their leadership narrative. What are the key capabilities, appropriate levels of investment, realistic ROI’s expectations for the short and long term, their appetite for risk and how it will be managed?
One of the biggest questions a coach can ask of a leader in today’s climate is; how do you know that fundamentally you have the right model to overcome the challenges?
As an example I’d encourage the idea of bringing the funders closer to the work of the programme deliverers, which doesn’t sound radical, but it does require the confidence to cede control and potentially compromise the funding model. It’s this sort of shift that coaching can make feel safer. As would be the case in the pursuit of commercial deals, social enterprises, collaborations with competitors and dare I say, mergers. Finding the model that keeps the mission alive regardless of the current or historical set up takes a certain type of leader and one that probably needs the safety net of a confidante and advocate who doesn’t hold authority over them.
As a previous boss once said to me “kill your own business before someone else does.” They were sage but wise words, tinkering and protectionism is rarely the answer. Nimbleness, boldness and focus hold the key for any Charity looking at its operating model. The trick for me is not to be seduced into a major cost reduction programme that simply salami slices every part of the business.
My experience in fundraising gives me a platform to explore these themes but I’ve come to realise that the dilemmas facing the third sector are substantially no different from those found in the public or commercial sectors. However, I am deeply concerned when I read of Charities cutting back their fundraising in order to shore up the short-term delivery of their mission. What is really happening is the demise of the life-line into the Charity. Long term thinking about tomorrow’s world is critical. You can’t expect to turn the fundraising tap on at the first point in time when you can afford to, it might just be too late.
In a crisis ,whatever the sector, strong leadership calmly evaluates the options, is prepared to remodel and to dramatically review the measures of success. What it won’t do is bite the hand that feeds it.
Yes, do more with less, yes cut out the fat, yes focus on the customer but please don’t just turn the tap off because you can.
[Originally written for the IoF, Sept. 2020. Edited for use on this site]