The good and bad (mostly bad) of copycat strategies

pexels-photo-26791In his book and TED talk Where good ideas come from’, Stephen Johnson describes new ideas as simply combinations of old ideas put together in new ways.

I define innovation as what you do differently to achieve your mission, and if that different activity is new to you then it counts. For example, if you don’t have a regular giving programme, a stewardship programme or a mass participation event and you develop one, it’s your innovation. Own it.

According to Oscar Wilde, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but how do you like it when your best mate buys the same suit as you, your boss uses your carefully thought through analogies as their own or another charity copies your fundraising idea?

In my experience it sucks.

Organisations copy each other to try to gain competitive advantage. Some may even have strategies to be second to market to learn from the market leaders mistakes. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s life.

However, if our strategy is to copy our competitors we should be copying the best in class – not just the best in the charity sector. And we should be aiming to make our product offering better than the original.

In the not for profit sector there are so many copy cat examples. What often happens is rather than making better, more powerful and exciting products for our supporters and beneficiaries we dilute our offerings, the market becomes saturated and then like sheep-lemming hybrids we all move onto the next big thing until we saturate that too. This happens over and over again. For example:

– Greenpeace invented face-to-face fundraising in Austria in the 1990s. It was hugely successful. In the UK street fundraisers are now more commonly referred to as ‘chuggers’. Short for charity mugger. That’s how popular they are. Lets just stop and consider this for a moment. Charities are set up to solve important social and environmental problems. For street fundraisers to have been described as muggers, which has become common language is incredibly sad. The general public has been overwhelmed by the volume of street fundraising and it has been restricted by local councils to keep fundraisers off the high street.

– Charity advertising posters on train carriages were first pioneered by Open Fundraising in the UK in 2010. Other charities saw this was working and they all piled in with variations on a theme. In the first quarter of 2013 there was a 125% increase in charity adverts on trains. This prompted debate about placing restrictions on the amount of charity train adverts. A copycat strategy based purely on channel is flawed; the driver for the channel or channels you pick should be based on what your offer is to the audience you want to reach.

– Until last year, when the tragic death of charity supporter Olive Cook instigated undercover investigations into direct mail and telephone fundraising practices, the big UK charities were on a telephone fundraising bandwagon. The business model was a Wal-Mart one – high volume, low-cost. Agencies were paid on commission based on volume. This meant that some were simply not able to deliver high quality calls for the budgets the charities were prepared to pay. In some cases corners were cut, supporters complained, the media got involved, charities withdrew and most of the telephone fundraising agencies in the UK have now gone bust.

– The first direct mail pen pack was developed by Amnesty in 2009. A pen was included in the pack because it was an instrument of torture that was described in the pack – it was also an instrument of change as the reader was encouraged to use it to fill in the enclosed donation form to support Amnesty. Other charities copied and flooded the market with pens in direct mail packs – missing the point that the pen was included because it was the heart of the campaign. The irony is that the irrelevant pens have in some cases increased response rates. Perhaps some may argue that it doesn’t matter if it helps the charity raise more money, but I think it does if it is out of context and dilutes the art and integrity of a carefully crafted direct mail campaign.

– In the UK Macmillan coffee morning runs throughout September and is the biggest fundraising event for people facing cancer. People get together with friends and family for coffee and cake and make a donation to Macmillan. It raises in the region of £25million each year. Coffee morning absolutely fits with why Macmillan exists – to support people living with cancer. In the UK every other charity has a poor version of the Coffee Morning or is developing one. When I ask people why? The answer, more often than not is, ‘because Macmillan have one.’ We don’t get to the root cause of the problem; the problem isn’t that we don’t have a coffee morning, the problem is that we don’t have a product that inspires our donors, helps them to be part of a movement to change the world. The latest wave of mass participation copycat products is abstinence. Check out Go sober for October, Dryathlon, Dechox and Phoneless Friday.

The result is diluted propositions, a marketplace so crowded that our supporters can’t tell the difference between who they are stopping alcohol and chocolate for, starting drinking coffee or eating cake for or growing facial hair or shaving their head in aid of. The public call fundraisers charity muggers. And we are mugs if we think mindlessly copying each other is the next big thing in innovation.

We compromise our own integrity by copying each other because we are scared of being different and standing out. We talk about innovation but what we really do is more of the same that is safe that someone else has already tested. What works well for one organisation at any point in time may not be the same for another with a different cause and different supporters with different motivations for support.

This is a call for bravery. Focus on the problems that your organisation exists to solve. Invest in supporter insight. Test different ideas. Ban requests for coffee mornings.

We must think differently. By all means copy, but copy the best in the world and make it even better for your audience. Don’t copy and dilute ideas.

A version of this blog was first published at Hilborn.

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