I’ll start by making one thing clear: I absolutely love the charity sector. In my 11 years working inside the sector (at Macmillan & the British Red Cross) I’ve worked with some incredible, passionate, cause-driven legends. And some of my best friends.
I’m also super proud of a bunch of the projects my colleagues and I got the chance to work on, support on or build from scratch: from redesigning the Coffee Morning digital journey, to the Ice Bucket Challenge, to creating the first 24 hour UK gaming event, to launching Miles for Refugees and Ride for Tomorrow and a bunch of other stuff at the British Red Cross.
Yet from my time working in the sector in an innovation team, and then setting up and leading one, there was one question I kept coming back to:
Why is it so damn hard to get anything new done in a charity?
Early in my career, I assumed it was because I didn’t know what I was doing (absolutely true). Or because I hadn’t built the right relationships yet (partially true). In short, I assumed it was entirely my fault, and worked hard at improving.
Then, as I got more senior roles it did get a (little bit) easier. I had some success, some failure, but at least some new ideas were getting out there to see the light of day.
Yet it still felt like much harder work than it should have been. Having new initiatives delayed by months or years (!?!) was more common than getting something out into the world quickly. And getting new things prioritised sometimes felt more like squeezing in a favour than something that strategically needs to happen to future proof an organisation.
Now, working at Good Innovation, I am lucky enough to work with a whole range of awesome clients from across the sector on projects that range from culture & strategy, to insight and new product development.
One thing that hasn’t exactly surprised me is that my experience wasn’t unique. The sheer difficulty of doing anything new within a charity is, sadly, the norm. So if you’re toiling away thinking you’re the only one, just know, you’re absolutely not alone!
But back to the question at hand. Why is it so hard? From my experience: charities simply aren’t set up to test, learn, scale up and embed new initiatives fast. Quite often they’re built to manage risk through hierarchy, checks and balances, and are ultimately tailored to optimise what they’re already doing. Plus, and this is the kicker, the ‘what we already do bucket’ is generally already full to the brim, or overflowing.
Which leads me to something else I found to be true over the past decade:
The only thing harder than launching something new at a charity, is stopping something that’s already been happening for years.
This seems to be true even in cases where said thing is performing poorly. And I’ve heard of plenty of cases of fundraising products being loss-making for years simply because no one stopped them from happening.
This creates an opportunity cost: time and investment is going into marginal or loss-making initiatives just because they’ve been going for a number of years, rather than being channelled into new high-potential initiatives (or existing ones that need more investment).
Almost every charity CEO says that they need to innovate more, but have these two interrelated things holding them back:
It is waaaaay too difficult to test, learn & scale new initiatives
Nothing is being stopped to create space
With the cost of living crisis starting to hit, traditional fundraising in a perpetual decline, and many in the sector not having any promising new initiatives coming through to replace those in decline, I’m a big believer that now is a critical juncture for charities to address these two areas head-on.
I know that’s easy for a consultant to say. But believe me, I know how hard those two things are to do in practise! So it would be incredible to see more charities focusing on them.
Right, I’m going to leave it there for now. I know that’s only touched the surface of those topics, but hopefully that gave you some food for thought! If anyone wants to chat anything through, I’m always keen to hear from people trying to tackle these issues.
Drop me an email at email@example.com and we can set up a chat.