Matthew Sherrington: Isn't it time we showed a bit more impatience for a bit more ambition?

Just waiting around for the world to change is not a good position for charities, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

"Good things come to those who wait," or so the saying goes.

It might be a benign aphorism about patience, a clever advertising line (Guinness in the 1990s, if you’re wondering) or something a parent might say, holding out against their whining child. And on the whole, when it comes to fundraising, it’s probably true. Charities can be quite short-term in their view of return on investment, and the long game can pay off. If your cash flow means you can afford to wait.

But when it comes to trying to change the world for the better, I’d retort: "No it bloody doesn’t." In that context, it’s a phrase that reeks of control and patronage, dripping with the entitlement of the haves to reward the have-nots for their passive inaction. It’s how the mediaeval church kept the suffering masses in their place. I don’t think we have time for patience.

You’ll wait forever, if you’re waiting on change and are depending on someone in power doing something different. Why would they? As Martin Luther King said: "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

And yet, the way you see some charities planning you’d think they had all the time in the world. It really isn’t that unusual for a fundraising director, faced with a demand to grow income by, let’s say, £1m, and asking what the charity would do or achieve with the money, to get no clear answer at all. I was recently involved in a planning exercise in which it became clear that service delivery managers had never been asked that million-dollar question and had never been asked to imagine what it would take to advance their mission beyond business as usual and close it out sooner. And they got rather fired up about it.

What seems to happen when charities get to a certain size or a certain stage in life is some sort of mid-life crisis borne of some sort of organisational physics. Organisational structure, systems and process start soaking up a lot of energy. As mass grows, velocity reduces, entropy kicks in and momentum slows (middle-aged spread, if you like).

Before you know it, just keeping going, ticking over business as usual and perhaps aiming for budget plus a few per cent (just to balance the budget with rising costs, you understand) is the extent of ambition. Running the organisation and its sustainability become the end, rather than the means. Organisations lose, as someone put it to me rather beautifully the other day, their "founding zeal".

Don’t you get a bit frustrated with all that time-wasting and slowness? The meeting culture, the internal politics, the poor decisions (or, worse, no decisions) that get in the way of the goal? What does it take for you to drive through, to focus, to keep yours eyes on the prize?

Passion, commitment and enthusiasm are all very well, but aren’t those feelings we have for a hobby? Doesn’t changing the world require a little bit more? A sense of importance, some ambition, drive and urgency, and that niggle of irritation, that much under-rated virtue – impatience?

So let’s do a lot less waiting and show a bit more impatience to get to the finishing line. You have a goal to achieve, not just a job to do. As Michelle Obama keeps saying: "Let’s get to work!"

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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