We need a membership body to improve the sector's mission delivery

How come there is this glaring hole in our infrastructure, and why is it barely discussed, asks our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

If you are reading this, the chances are that you are a member, either as an individual or an organisation, of one of the sector bodies: Acevo, the Charity Finance Group, CharityComms, the Institute of Fundraising or one of many others. These bodies exist to boost leadership, finance, communications and fundraising, to name a few areas. There is one body you won't and can't be a member of: the Institute of Charity Service Delivery - because it doesn't exist.

There is no organisation to improve the way that charities deliver their services or their mission. Indeed, there are precious few conferences, articles, blogs or anything that looks at how charities can do the best job possible with their limited resources. There is quite a lot about impact and evaluation, but this is the equivalent of measuring how fast the race is run, not how to run it faster or whether the right race is being run.

How come we have this glaring hole in our sector's infrastructure and, more curious still, why is it barely even discussed? One of the reasons, I suspect, is that at first sight trying to find common strands of insight in, say, cancer research and tackling poverty is like trying to find the similarities between apples and bears. This is compounded by the fact that, whereas fundraisers and finance experts will go from, say, a cancer charity to a poverty charity and take their ideas with them, a cancer scientist is unlikely to move in the same way. The intellectual mobility and cross-fertilisation that is so vital in spreading good ideas is more restricted in mission delivery.

Another reason that charities don't think about mission delivery is one they share with the American railroads at the turn of the 19th century. The American management guru Theodore Levitt described how the US railroads faltered with the advent of the car because they saw themselves as being in the rail business, not the transport business. So they weren't worried until it was too late.

Charities often suffer from the same "marketing myopia", as Levitt called it. Organisations that start by doing one kind of service delivery let that become their mission and let it define what they are: think of hospices that are so good at building bricks and mortar but which don't campaign to improve NHS services. So the service delivery comes to define them, rather than simply being a means to an end. This rigidity in thinking means charities are probably less likely to be looking for new and better ways to deliver their mission.

However, as income from government declines - and the likelihood of individual giving following it because of tougher fundraising regulation - it will be ever more important for charities to think again about how to best deliver their missions. This may well force charities with limited resources to work out how to eke out every ounce of progress towards mission delivery.

NfpSynergy's recent report Past Imperfect touched on some of these issues and, after I had a few sleepless nights, to me it began to hint at the common and insightful strands between cancer research and poverty reduction, between reducing climate change and homelessness. There are things to be discussed. I just can't find a conference that would be interested in my talk on the topic.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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