The end game for charities

endgameI’d like to thank Chris Wright, CEO of Catch22, and fellow Nottinghamian, for sending me an excellent piece published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It was in response to a debate I’d had with him about scale, reach and the role of large charities, including his own.

The Stanford paper was written as a response to the fact that scaling up a service to reach all of those who may need it can be a slow, expensive, often impractical route for charities, so the authors suggest six alternatives that they call “endgames”. Their alternatives are: open source, replication, government adoption, commercial adoption, mission achievement and sustained service. I’ve written about most of them in the past, and I’ve summarised and critiqued them below, but this time, as you read, I want you to seriously think about which one your charity should be pursuing.

The first on their list is “open source”, and it’s where a charity makes all its research and practices available to anyone who wants it, for free. The example the American authors give is Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are successful examples much closer to home, not least the NSPCC. As long as you can generate enough income from fundraising and grants to pay your innovation, research and support costs, building a community and giving them free access to your expertise is one of the fastest ways to scale your ideas and multiply your impact.

What the authors term “Replication” is similar to open source, but instead of giving away the knowledge and the control, the charity provides it to others, usually at a price, in the form of training, certification, consultancy and the like. Several of my clients have developed, and succeeded with this type of model; helping other providers, often direct competitors, to turn around performance and raise standards across the provider landscape, while making a very respectable income to help fund their research programmes. Done in the right way, it’s a proven, sustainable model to extend your expertise and impact far beyond the limit of your own services.

“Commercial adoption”, or what I’d describe as “market making” is exemplified by organisations like Scope, who opened their first school in 1955. Having seen they could deliver an effective model, education authorities turned on the funding taps over successive decades, attracting many more organisations into special education. Deliberately attracting competitors into your most profitable market is a tough sell to any Board, but it’s an effective way to grow capacity, and it gives you the scope (pun intended) to eventually exit the market completely, and to focus on the next challenge.

“Government adoption” is probably the simplest of the alternatives to understand and the hardest to achieve. Prove the impact, affordability and suitability of the model, and persuade government agencies to adopt or mandate it. The Care Act proved a useful adoption vehicle, but it took a huge amount of work from a wide community of charities, and few would say either the act or its implementation have been entirely flawless. Nevertheless, for many charities, including my friends at Catch22, it’s likely that government adoption is the best endgame they have.

Those first four endgames are powerful alternatives to scaling up yourself. I’ve seen all four of them work extremely well, and I think they all merit serious consideration by any charity Board that wants to dramatically increase its impact. But in my view, the last two on the Stanford list, including “mission achievement”, are far less helpful.

I’ve heard lots of charity leaders say, with genuine conviction, that their mission is to put themselves out of business; to solve all the problems they’re dealing with, so they can close their doors on a job well done. But I’ve never seen it happen. I can’t think of a single mature charity that didn’t extend their mission or expand their scope any time they neared success. Achieving your mission makes a great sound-bite, but it’s a quixotic endgame for most charities.

In the same way, “sustained service” can also be a bit of a cop-out. As the authors themselves point out, sustaining the delivery of a suite of services seems to be the default mindset for many charities, but most of those charities have greater ambitions implied within their mission. Whether it means reaching more people, changing public attitudes, transforming the landscape of provision, or addressing a deeper “root cause”; for most charities, the services are only part of their raison d’être – a means to an end – and the effort to sustain them can often distract from the end itself.

So, here’s your challenge: tell me what you think the endgame should be for your charity.

Is it as clear in your Board’s heads as it is in yours? Is it different for different services? Do you disagree vehemently with me about either of the last two? Let me know what you think.

You can read the full Stanford Review article here.

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