Dawn Varley: Tick the boxes, but make sure you do the work too

There is more to tick boxes if charities are to properly engage with the issues, writes our columnist

Dawn Varley
Dawn Varley

The tick box. A much talked-about but little understood thing. Whether we're talking the literal tick box on the data capture form (is it opt-in or opt-out, and do we need it there at all?) or the actual wider practice of carrying out something that just has to be done, the mere mention tends to pull faces into a grimace or prompt an eye roll.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "tick-box exercise" as "denoting or relating to a procedure or process carried out purely to satisfy convention, rules or regulations". That sounds about right, but what it doesn't say, although perhaps it's implied, is that the approach won't get you where you need to be.

Unless there is an appreciation of the need, an understanding of the purpose and a real engagement with the issue by all those involved, in particular those tasked with responsibility for delivering it, then it won't work. The box will be ticked in theory, but in practice you'll fail.

Working as a fundraiser for many years I've seen so many examples of this across all aspects of what we do. I've seen CRM projects where the charity "simply" wants a new, shiny, integrated system, but doesn't want to put the time and effort required into the project, so they "light-touch" it just to get the minimum done.

Result? Either a failure of the project (likely best: learn and do it differently next time) or delivery of a CRM that pleases no one, delivers badly and means the expected benefits and cost-savings are lost.

In the obvious data-protection example, I know of organisations that don't seem to want to read (or perhaps accept) the relevant official guidance on the imminent General Data Protection Regulation, but continue to look at what others are doing and use that as a rationale for a way forward. So they'll tick the box to do something, but won't necessarily be doing it right, and in doing so take they take a sizeable risk with reputation.

Other clear examples exist. I heard of a sea swim challenge recently that a colleague of mine questioned on the basis of basic safety - not an under-appreciation of risk, but an over-reaction to it. Swimmers were being tailed too closely by fume-belching safety boats and, in some cases, swimmers were removed from the water when it wasn't necessary.

In another case, heavy rain before a swim event meant the water was contaminated by run-off, so several swimmers fell sick the next day. No one in charge had thought of that scenario, even when it was raised the day before by an entrant. The boxes had already been ticked, it seems.

Finally, the issue that seems to be hitting all sectors, and will no doubt hit ours too - sexual harassment. Third Sector columnist Gill Taylor wrote an excellent online article on the need for a code of conduct and HR policies to help organisations and staff deal with it. I agree with all she says, but this too risks becoming another tick-box exercise.

Taylor is clear that it is key to make the issue a living and breathing one, not one dealt with by a new code, which is then filed away and never referred to again. She tells us to "talk about what this means openly and clearly. Don't see this as a one-off; keep talking and use real examples ... Don't be a bystander ... Be proactive."

Wise words indeed, and ones we should consider in any situation where we have to apply rules, regulations, assessments and all the other variations on that theme.

Whether it's over safety, sexual harassment, data or another issue, the rules are there for a reason, and we should ensure we take due care, thought and time, not just in applying them, but making them part of what we do around here - to the benefit of everyone concerned.

Dawn Varley is a fundraising consultant

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