Knowing when to admit defeat and move on

American Idol gets Debra Allcock Tyler thinking about the importance of knowing when to give up

My small goddaughters stayed with me for a sleepover a couple of weeks ago. We were watching American Idol, a particular favourite.

A young woman with her hair dyed almost pure white came on and performed a version of an Ella Fitzgerald song. I thought she sang really well, and said so to Niamh and Ciara. Niamh agreed with me, but Ciara said she didn't like the woman. I asked her why. She said: "I don't like people with white hair. Apart from you, Debs."

I was particularly mortified because, only the day before, I'd spent several hours and a small fortune at the hairdresser as part of an ongoing and clearly futile battle to hide the white. I told a friend what Ciara had said. She suggested that perhaps it was time I bowed to the inevitable and let my hair show its true colour - or lack thereof.

When is the right time for leaders to bow to the inevitable? To give up our pet projects or close our organisations? Should we, in the words of Dylan Thomas, "rage, rage against the dying of the light"? Or, as in Ecclesiastes, should we acknowledge that "to everything there is a season ... a time to be born and a time to die"?

I think this is an exceptionally hard question to answer with regard to charitable activity. Sometimes, I suspect, organisations or projects remain in existence not because they serve a vision, but simply because they already exist and it is very, very difficult to let go of our 'babies' - especially if that means losing staff or funding.

But no matter how hard it is, we have a responsibility to question our work and our existence, considering it in the context of what we originally set out to achieve. We must be prepared to let go of things that are no longer necessary, or that are being carried out perfectly well by some other organisation.

We do not exist for the sake of existing - we exist to serve a purpose. If that purpose can be or is being carried out by others, we have to ask ourselves if we are still really needed or if there is something else we should be doing instead.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.

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