When you stop to think about it, working for a charity is a really bold move. A charity is set up because there is an unmet and often urgent need for change to happen. Your role in that, whether you are a fundraiser, campaigner, administrator, trustee or deliver services directly, is to make that change happen. To do this individuals and organisations have to be bold, brave and take risks, yet in my decade of experience of working with charities across the world, as a sector, I think we are hugely risk averse.
On the face of it, this makes no sense. We should be daring, courageous, angry and fearless, but for the most part we tiptoe hesitantly over eggshells for fear of being criticised for wasting money or being the target of negative and damaging publicity.
I’m not saying we should set out to take unreasonable risks or that we should not be concerned about our reputations, but if we compromise or settle for anything less than relentlessly striving to find the most effective and fastest ways to solve the urgent problems that our organisations exist to solve, then we are not delivering on the important jobs that we have been entrusted with.
We typically consider risk as the possibility of something bad happening as a result of taking action. But what about the risk of not doing something, or continuing to do the same things? The risk of staying the same should not be underestimated. Perhaps the most poignant example of ‘do nothing risk’ is Kodak who filed for bankruptcy in 2012 because they didn’t respond to the decline of the film market and the growth digital photography. You can read my blog about it here.
How do we adapt our approach to risk?
People are motivated by push, pull or a combination of both.
Push motivation is when you actively push yourself away from pain or the perception of anticipated pain. Generally the pain has to be pretty bad before you do something about it.
Pull motivation is your desire to achieve something; your end goal. Depending on the goal, pull motivation is longer term and a stronger motivating force than push motivation.
In simple terms the gain must be more than the pain. For people working in charities, the gain of achieving your organisations mission must be greater than the pain of not reaching it.
Framed like this, it is when organisations or individuals within organisations are not fully committed or connected that risk aversion becomes an issue. When everyone in an organisaiton is truly connected to its mission the perceived risk of trying something new in order to achieve it is lessened. So one tactic to encourage risk is to ensure that the whole organization is inspired by and committed to achieving its mission and most importantly the difference that achieving it will make to its beneficiaries.
A robust innovation process helps you manage risk
Following a robust process for innovation will also help you get a grip on risk. The basic principles are outlined below.
From working with many teams over the years, the teams that embrace risk are the ones that are focused on the end goal, work in collaboration, have a process for innovation and importantly the individuals have a can-do attitude. They are more likely to seize opportunities than fear risk. It all starts with your mindset.
In a recent conversation, Lucy Gower, called me out and challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and put fingers to the keyboard, to reflect on and share my personal journey over the last 2 years in developing the Cystic Fibrosis Trusts’ ‘Life Unlimited’ campaign.
You may have heard the story behind ‘Cystic Fibrosis is no Party’, the campaign that last year helped the Trust mark its 50th anniversary and was the starting point for ‘Life Unlimited’. If not, you can read it here. Importantly, the campaign created the impetus and momentum to really consider what the Trust wished to achieve and what change was required to get there. So 18 months on, where are we?
On 10th November 2015, the Trust embarked on communicating our renewed ambition to fight for a life unlimited by cystic fibrosis, for everyone born with the condition. Sounds simple, but there has been an enormous level of change required as we have organised ourselves, our strategies and our tactics to make this more than simply a set of shiny new logos and a few brand platitudes.
With any change comes uncertainty, anxiety and above all the need to stay focused on the vision of the change you seek to create. Often, when the going gets tough it’s easy to compromise, to let something go to get something agreed and moved forward. The two most important things I have learned are.
These are non-negotiable. ‘Dilute your vision at your peril’ are words that still ring in my ears from a man who knows all about vision & ambition; Giles Pegram, CBE, 30 years director of fundraising at the NSPCC and leader of the Full Stop Campaign.
The old adage goes that you can’t keep on doing the same old things in the same old way yet expect a different outcome. You have to do something differently. Fundraising, as we know it, so often is the bolt on. Rarely is it placed front and centre, despite the fact it enables organisations to act. Step changing income to drive increased impact and influence can only occur when organisationally you have built the right environment for fundraising to succeed. Getting the Trust to a point where fundraising is viewed as a collective, organisational responsibility, has, in itself created the conditions to develop inspiring high impact programmes to fundraise for.
Doing things differently can be challenging at an individual and organisational level as you often have to step in to take decisive action to square that circle of conflicting perspectives. For example, I took the team away from their day-to-day jobs and locked them away for 2 days with one objective, to deliver a new ambition and articulate a case for support. This focused our minds and cut through weeks, if not months, of debate. I suspect, that its review after 48 hours by Giles and one of our Trustees might also have focused our minds!
I’m not professing we’ve reached utopia, nor can change happen in 2 days, but the spirit and intention is there and we continue to work through the challenges. Part of that process has included investment in leadership development. Quite simply if as an organisation you are fighting for a life unlimited, you need to be ready for that fight. Within that, I recall a slice of 360 feedback (yes a gift) which made me take a step back. The feedback was ‘Be less Alex Salmond and more Nelson Mandela’.
I pondered this for a while, probably at the same time as trying to work out who delivered this nugget. Was it to suggest one approach failed, where one succeeded? Was this a matter of style over substance? What were they digging at? It made me ask questions around driving change. Does one irritate or instigate change? I have previously written on how innovation needs an ‘irritant’ and this feedback pushed me to consider whether I had been irritating too hard. Was I singularly focused? Was I pushing when I should have been pulling others to the mission? My conclusion? You need to do both. And reassuringly I was.
Change is hard, so you have to irritate and question that the current way may not be the best way to push people out of their comfort zone, and you also need to pull people towards the new vision and ambition.
Sounds easy? It’s not. At times I’ve felt like I am walking the road alone, I’ve often thought why bother; the status quo is a nice place which doesn’t call for 18 hour days or a week of difficult conversation after difficult conversation, or the difficult decisions that to be fit for purpose a team or teams may need to be reorganised, or those moments where you ask ‘is it me’? Given all that, we (and indeed our causes) are here to make a difference, and that is what driving change is; making what may seem impossible possible.
If you are reading this and wondering if it’s worth continuing to drive for that bigger, bolder more innovative and challenging vision and ambition, the answer is yes. Keep going. Those breakthrough moments arrive, you will find advocates and champions for your ideas and soon you get to a point of alignment and that is when you forge ahead.
Imagine the day, and it will come, where you hear your team, or indeed even teams owning and driving their commitment and determination to realise the ambition. Then smile with that inner satisfaction. However you have irritated and instigated, when the change is owned across the organisation it is then time to irritate and instigate more! You can’t stand still.
The Cystic Fibrosis Trust has come a long way in the last few years in terms of transformation; we’ve still further to travel. Huge thanks go to the many people who have worked through (or to coin a quote shared recently ‘exploded out of’) huge amounts of treacle to get us to this point. What drives and unites us is a determination to deliver on our mission and to continually challenge ourselves to question, ‘Are we doing the very best we can to fight for a life unlimited for every person living with cystic fibrosis?’
Iain McAndrew is Chief Irritant and Instigator at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. He has worked with a number of the UK’s largest and most ambitious charities including Save the Children & Guide Dogs, a former vice chair with Remember a Charity and is a Trustee with Action on Disability in Development (ADD International).
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