Leesa Harwood: We need brave leaders

In the latest in our Future of Fundraising series, the consultant and former director of fundraising at the RNLI says too many leaders are the victims of short-term targets

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

Jack Welch, former chief executive and chair of General Electric, famously said "change before you have to", because then you have time to consider options, stakeholders, risk and opportunity. Charity leaders need to heed this advice and spend considerable time scanning the horizon and listening. They have to be curious enough to find out what lies ahead and courageous enough to chart a course to meet it. This change is more considered, evolutionary and informed.

However, too many leaders exist only in the here and now. They are victims of short-term targets instead of architects of the future. These leaders wait until change is forced upon them by burning platforms. This kind of change is painful and shocking, and often follows prolonged periods of denial by people who did not change before they had to.

At Third Sector's Leaders in Fundraising forum in November, there were few surprises. Many of the issues discussed had been flagged at some point over the past decade or beyond. And yet every issue persists today.

Institutional isomorphism – when organisations become increasingly similar at the expense of creativity, innovation or clarity – remains rife in the sector. In 2015, the fundraising sector was rocked to its core because commoditised fundraising led to a backlash against charities after the Olive Cooke case. And yet the big, direct marketing juggernauts persist and charities remain stuck in their old ways.

In 2016, a study revealed that 50 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 and 40 per cent of those aged 25 to 34 would prefer to use crowdfunding platforms to donate money directly to individuals rather than donate via an established charity organisation. And yet we continue to try to get the next generation of world-changers to conform to the existing charity model.

In 2017, a Civil Society Futures report supported the view that civil society has been hijacked by big institutions and that "charities have become part of the very system they were set up to challenge", pre-empting a localist backlash.

We stand on the shoulders of remarkable charity founders. But what legacy will today’s leaders choose to leave behind? Will our successors be forced to make brutal changes because we did not evolve? It’s difficult to change before you need to, because people need a burning platform as an incentive. A bit of heat and smoke is not always enough. The fundraising model and the charity model are not completely broken. Yet. But only those leaders brave enough to smell the smoke and change before they have to will hand our successors the legacy they deserve.

If today’s charity leaders get this right, they won’t relinquish the role of world changers; they will democratise it so that it is bigger and more impactful than we could ever imagine. The opportunity is greater than the threat, but only if we are brave enough to change before we have to. As Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living or get busy dying."

Leesa Harwood is a fundraising consultant

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