Behavioural psychologists may argue over which is the more effective motivator: escaping negative consequences or striving for positive ones. Either way, the pairing of reward and punishment runs through virtually every book of the Torah, Bible and Qur’an, it’s shaped centuries of social policy, and even today, deeply influences how most people parent their children and most organisations manage their people.
Modern coaching techniques focus almost exclusively on the positive angle: imagining the ideal future, visualising each bend in the course, picturing the ball sailing between the posts. And the reason is simple: the desire to avoid being last in the race might motivate training for a few weeks, but the path to winning gold and to breaking records is built on bold vision and powerful ambition.
This has enormous relevance for non-profits. In vision statements and outward-looking aspirations, charities and non-profits are rarely short of bold ambition. But internally, whether in strategy or day-to-day delivery, it’s often the avoidance of negative consequences that shapes the action plan.
Charities don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re in a constant competition: with other messages for share of attention, with other priorities for political influence, with other commitments for volunteers’ time, sometimes with each other for donors and income. And a mindset focused on avoiding the negative is a terrible one to take into a competition.
In any competitive environment, some will push ahead, innovating and embracing change, and their performance will raise the bar for everyone else. The rest of the pack inevitably end up having to change if they want to stay in the game, but few ever make up for the ground they’ve lost or the opportunities they’ve missed.
Commercial retail is going through the biggest and longest period of change in its history. I was at Boots the Chemist in 1996 when they launched their online store less than two years after Amazon opened its virtual doors. They were among the earliest to launch an electronic loyalty card, to source product over the internet, to go mobile, to put iPads in the hands of store staff. They didn’t wait until they needed to change, they changed because they wanted to lead. Along with the others at the front of the pack, they continually raised the bar on customer expectations, and many of those left in the wake are now going underwater.
But through all that retail revolution, one part of the sector has barely changed at all. Charity shops are remarkably resilient, which is why they’ve survived almost untouched by the technological transformation. Only a fraction of their trade goes online, few charity retailers have a sophisticated CRM, and even fewer have electronic loyalty schemes that link someone’s donated goods, purchasing patterns and online interactions into their potential supporter journey. Most charity retailers probably won’t change until they absolutely have to, but the opportunities they are missing could be vast. If change is inevitable, why wait for the pain to start?
The template is there in other parts of the charity world. A great many grant-funded organisations have had to find ways to cover that income as it’s been steadily cut away. Many have succeeded – not just by winning contracts, but by finding new sources of funding – voluntary and earned; by setting up new enterprises and engaging new customers. Why didn’t they do it before? The honest answer is probably because they didn’t need to. And yet, most of those opportunities were always there, their potential missed, their income unrealised.
Negative motivation can only take you so far. The negative option is to wait for the pain, then try to react to stay in business. The positive option is to see those changes coming, to lead the way with urgency and ambition, to realise the organisation’s full potential sooner rather than later.
Where could a bold leadership vision be transformational for your operation?