Debra Allcock Tyler: Sometimes goldfish should die

We all have to make choices and take risks, and that won't please all the people we're meant to please, writes the chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Reecently, Kate Lee, chief executive of Clic Sargent, shared with a group of us that their family gerbils had copped it and the kids were distraught. This prompted the brilliant Jane Ide, chief executive of Navca, to share this story, which had me in stitches.

"We inherited a single goldfish when we bought our house. He’d been happily living in a tiny sink in the garden for at least two years before we discovered him. So I gave him a beautiful new home and three days later he was a floater. As I then had a beautiful new fish home with no fish, I bought four new ones. One died within 24 hours; two kamikazied themselves out. I found one of them on the ground three feet away from the pond. They can jump, those buggers. So I now had one lonely goldfish swimming around in a pond I didn’t want. When we got back from holiday at the weekend I found the pond had leaked and he was swimming around in about six inches of water. So now I have to replace the pond I didn’t want to provide a home for the goldfish I only got to put in the pond I didn’t want. And I bet you any money you like that he’ll die three days after I do that!"

That story feels like such a brilliant metaphor for the treadmill of choices that beset us in our sector. We are all juggling so many demands. There are so many people we’re supposed to please: the media; public opinion; the Charity Commission; the Fundraising Regulator; the auditors; the funders; the donors; the volunteers; the staff; the trustees; other charities; the private sector; the uncertain revenue; which bills to prioritise – the list is exhausting and endless. And in trying to please all those people and meet all these demands it is so horribly easy to lose sight of the whole point of the exercise – the beneficiaries of our cause, whether that’s human beings, animals or the environment.

For me, leadership in our sector is fundamentally about risk and choices. We can’t change the world by avoiding risk. It’s not for us to choose the less risky course because it causes less trouble or we’ve got trapped into a goldfish/pond/goldfish cycle. It’s our job to take the risks that are the most likely to further our cause and serve our beneficiaries. And to do that sometimes we’ll have to tell some folk or some issues to either wait or leave them flopping about in six inches of water. When it comes to priorities, the loudest shouters are not necessarily the most important. But I can say that right at the top of my list of priorities are the beneficiaries. Everyone else can get in line.

We have to make hard choices and recognise that sometimes those choices will come back to bite us. But as Socrates famously didn’t say (partly because he was Greek, not Roman), "Hippurus et interdum debet" ("Sometimes goldfish should die").

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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