Why transforming a charity is so hard…
What does success look like for your organisation? And if I asked each of your team, your executives, and your trustees that same question, would they all answer in broadly the same way?
This is a fundamental question for strategy, and here’s why.
There is a subtle tension in most charities that emerges during strategy discussions – the tension between “what we do”, and “why we do it”. These might sound like interchangeable concepts, but when times change, the difference between them becomes critical.
We’ve all seen aspects of this over the last eighteen months. As the practices we’ve traditionally used to make our impact in the world have been constrained or curtailed by Covid, we’ve had to rethink, sometimes completely reinvent them.
To do that, we’ve had to get back in touch with their purpose; why we did these things in the first place; what impact they were intending to achieve; so that we can find new ways to achieve it. And in many cases, those new ways are proving better, more efficient, more efficacious, than the stuff we did before.
“Why” is what drives innovation and creativity, and it’s also a question you can repeat again and again. Why do we want that impact – what do we expect and hope it will achieve? It’s why all the way up to purpose, that final rung of the ladder where we stop asking.
Is your purpose to run a good school, or to educate children; to help them achieve the qualifications they need to get a job, or to enable them to live secure, independent, and fulfilling lives?
Only one of these can be your purpose; only one can represent your ultimate measure of success. Everything before that one is merely the best way to achieve that success; the best way you’ve come up with… up until now. And that’s the point.
For a mission-driven organisation, everything you did yesterday should be seen in that light: the best way you knew then, but temporal, transient, dispensable, just as soon as you found better practices and more innovative and effective routes to achieving that same, or greater success.
They should be seen in that light. But they rarely are.
Because we become attached. Attached to what we know, invested in what we do, afraid of what might happen to the organisation, the people it employs, the people it supports, if we move away from the tried and true.
The language we hear may be of heritage, history, and identity, but in reality, the measure of success becomes “not screwing it up”. This is the reason that transforming a charity is so hard, the resistance so profound.
At a seminar I hosted this week, one CEO shared a story. When he took over the top role in a huge, well loved, 80-year-old charity, he was given a video, made by the original founder in his late years, specifically for his successors to watch on entering the job.
In it, he essentially said, “Do whatever you need to do, and ignore anyone who would use my name to try and stop you.” He was a radical, as were the founders of virtually every great charity. He knew that at some point, everything he had built would need tearing down and building again to meet the needs of a different future.
The same is true for virtually every charity that has stood the test of time. Their true heritage is one of radical thinking and courageous spirit; their history one of change and transformation; their identity one of regular reinvention. That’s why they are still here to pursue their purpose, to continue to achieve and strive for success.
So, ask the question: what does success look like for your organisation?
But this time, elevate the thinking from practice to purpose, aim high up the “ladder of whys” for your real definition of success, and harness the energy and creativity you saw during the pandemic to open up your next strategy to all the radical new ideas for achieving that success.
And if anyone throws heritage, history, or identity in your way, claim all three to underline your case.