There’s an old story about a Persian farmer that a lot of struggling charities might find extremely relevant. It was popularised by the 19th century Baptist minister Russell Conwell and it goes like this:
Many years ago, when diamond mining was just taking off in India, Ali Hafed, the farmer in the story, became infatuated with the idea of finding them. So he sold his farm and travelled throughout Africa, Asia and Europe in his search, eventually running out of funds and killing himself in a fit of despondency.
Meanwhile, the man who bought his farm found a curious-looking rock in a stream that turned out to be a diamond, the first of many to be found in what became the Golkonda Diamond mine. The moral of the story is that those bright shiny things you’re after may be right there, under your nose, if you only know what to look for.
Why is that story so relevant to struggling charities?
I’ve just finished a strategic review with a wonderful charity, most of whose income came historically from Local Authority contracts. The initial brief was to help them find new business directions: new types of customer for whom they could develop new services and thereby reduce their dependency on such a precarious market in these straightened times.
Having done this kind of thing a few times in the past, I suggested that while we were exploring new opportunities, we should also run the slide-rule over the core part of the organisation, and look at the opportunities there as well. Luckily, the wise and far-sighted CEO and trustees agreed.
The plan that emerged is 20% new business directions and 80% big opportunities within their core markets. It’s been a tricky shift in expectations to manage, and both the executive and the board have adjusted well to what we found, but like many of the similar projects I’ve done, it underscores the premise of the farmer’s story.
Yes, there are big new opportunities out there. Yes, diversification into new markets does reduce risk and could help secure the future of an organisation. And yes exploring new directions should be a key part of any strategic agenda.
But I bet you a pound to a penny, that the biggest single opportunity for your organisation is the acre of diamonds right there under your feet. You might only need some fresh eyes to help you see it.