Hello, young man! What aqua aerobics can teach charities

A guest blog by Richard Sved.

shutterstock_487107589The elderly woman in the bathing cap smiled sweetly as she waded slowly towards me.

“Hello, young man! Would you like to join me and the girls for a cup of tea afterwards?” she asked.

What led to this offer of tea with thirty women in my local sports centre?

Well, it started with surgery to fix a longstanding knee injury. As part of my recovery, it became clear that exercising in water, where there is less impact and less weight going through the knee would be an excellent way to build up strength.

So there I was in the aqua aerobics class. I went every week for a few months. It was quite a tough workout, and really did me some good.

And yet I was always the only man there. “We had a man with us for a few weeks a few years back” I was told. And I was generally the only person there under about sixty years of age.

Why was this the case? Surely I can’t have been the only man in Hertfordshire for whom this kind of exercise was beneficial?

And why is this question relevant to charities?

We need to find solutions that are right for us

Somehow aqua aerobics is seen as something only elderly women do, even though it could do the rest of us a lot of good. And I would argue that charities are also too busy looking at what other organisations do. We offer pale imitations. But we should also be focusing on our own situation, and developing our work accordingly. The best innovation comes from within.

Think internally as well externally

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We all do “SWOT analysis” don’t we? It’s useful stuff, and helps us to appraise our organisations so that we can think strategically. Right? I’m not so sure.

My worry is that we focus more on the externally facing quadrants, the opportunities and the threats, because these are more interesting and forward-looking. And that this comes at the expense of real hard thinking about our organisations’ strengths and weaknesses. What is unique about what we offer? What specifically has drawn our supporters to us?

A real understanding of our own organisation and its supporters is what will bring about true innovation. Not our own paler version of the ice bucket challenge. Let’s listen to our supporters properly.

We mustn’t all look the same

And this is the key point. My fear is that as organisations we are becoming too similar. We are anxiously looking at others’ successes and copying them, whether it’s fundraising initiatives or even the structure of our fundraising teams. This leads to what DiMaggio and Powell described some decades back as “institutional isomorphism” and it’s not a healthy place to be. If we all look too similar, we may all be taken down by the same epidemic, and there’ve certainly been a few threats lately. After all, Darwinism isn’t really just about survival of the fittest. It’s about the benefits of diversity, and finding different solutions to the problems we face.

So please, charities, think about your own “knees”. Don’t worry so much about who else is joining you in the class.

And then maybe one day I won’t be the only ‘young man’ enjoying a cuppa afterwards.

Richard Sved is the founding Director of 3rd Sector Mission Control and is an NCVO sustainable funding consultant.

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