Dawn Varley: It's time to take stock and ask why we're really here

If we do, we might be able to do more, or less but better, writes the fundraising consultant

Dawn Varley
Dawn Varley

Where to begin in a column that focuses on "good practice" when once again we are plunged into a crisis (albeit one that reflects problems, issues and concerns prevalent in wider society, and across all sectors)? Much has been written about the horrific abuses of people who expect to be safe when dealing with charities, whether beneficiaries, staff or whoever, and it is likely there is much more to be said.

I’ve already written about making sure we don’t just tick boxes because the danger is that the policies, procedures and, ultimately, the critically important cultural approach to "how we do things around here" gets lost under the ticked-but-not-implemented paperwork.

But now we’re in a very different place and on a different scale. I think it’s important that non-profit organisations go back to very basics of why we exist, what we aim to achieve and how best we can do that. We need to remind ourselves what this is all about – I fear we’ve got lost along the way.

Take a second to ask yourself these questions: do you know what your charitable objects say your organisation does? Do all your staff? What problem out there in the world do you seek to solve? And, honestly, how often do you check progress on that issue versus the in-year target for reach or a set of KPIs, or track income flow, or the other measures that you focus on?

We’re so concerned with hitting in-year targets, delivering the latest campaign, looking for how we can innovate to get the extra 1 per cent, that there’s a risk we are lost in business as usual. We need to lift our heads up from the immediate, take a breath and look out to the horizon ahead – and the one behind. How are we actually doing in the long-term? Does effort expended at least equate to progress made? Now be honest – does it? And is anyone tracking medium to long-term reach, results, impact – however you want to slice it – further than the life of the last strategy?

As a fundraiser I know all too well the inherent and often relentless drive for growth, the push for acquisition, the need to grow the product portfolio. It’s a treadmill, but I’m not sure it always makes sense.

        We're so concerned with hitting in-year targets and delivering the latest campaign that there's a risk we are lost in business as usual

I wonder whether most organisations know what their optimum size is or whether growth of 10 per cent over five years, or – lo and behold – another "double our income in the next 10 years" aspiration really makes sense. Who worked that out, and on what basis? If you stopped to think, what would you say the optimum size and way of working would be for your organisation if it is to make the most impact?

The only organisation I can think of that’s done that recently is Scope, which announced last year that it was fundamentally changing its business model in order to better achieve its mission. This meant a radical restructure, staff numbers almost halving and an expected income fall of 40 per cent. Wow. Imagine coming up with that and having to convince your staff and beneficiaries. But Mark Atkinson, chief executive of Scope, did just that.

If we stop pushing the boundaries and instead take stock of the foundations, it’s possible we could end up doing more. Or do less, but better. If we stop chasing the new donors we think we need each year, and instead paid more attention to the ones that are already with us, we could certainly do more with less, particularly in the long term.

Among all this is making sure we do all things well, including important aspects such as safeguarding.

So who is up for that challenge? It seems to me that the time is right for radical change. Let’s be the ones to act. After all, that’s what we’re here for, right?

Dawn Varley is a fundraising consultant

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