With charities seeing their traditional revenue streams eroding, is now the time for business as usual and further optimisation, or is it time for business unusual and a step change in our thinking?
Let’s get something out the way quickly: the General Data Protection Regulation is not to blame for failing income streams. The problem is that our sector has been far too transactional and technique-led. It hasn’t adapted to a changing world and it’s struggling to remain relevant.
But rather than bemoaning the fact that the world is changing, charities have to evolve.
At WaterAid it started with a big vision and leadership. We did away with our fundraising strategy a few years ago and replaced it with an engagement strategy and framework that integrates across functions. We rebalanced our messaging, talking more about progress being made, and we don’t always ask for money. Guess what? Income generation remains strong.
This vision and leadership continues throughout everything we do. We want "partners in the mission", not just "funders of the mission". So we look to collaborate and co-create with individuals and businesses, focusing on building shared value. In other words, we deliver mission and provide value to our partner’s objectives. Social enterprise fits this perfectly with having the potential to provide a steady flow of scalable unrestricted income, so we’re building our portfolio, alongside other innovations.
I’m increasingly being asked how we do what we do at WaterAid. Much of the questioning is along the lines of whether we have an innovation process, an innovation team or an innovation budget. Innovation isn’t about seeing it as a process to follow, a linear equation or a team that sits somewhere. We need to be looking at innovation differently.
A few heads of fundraising, such as Joe Jenkins at the Children’s Society, are rethinking their whole approach to involving supporters, moving from product-led to support-led engagement. I admire Macmillan Cancer Support for integrating its services and fundraising, focusing on the value it provides to society and building brand love. Who doesn’t love the RSPB engaging you in the issues by being part of the solution as backyard conservationists? And the Alzheimer’s Society building a movement for change with United Against Dementia is bold.
Our sector attracts incredibly talented people who could earn more in the private sector and who are really driven to change the world for the better. And we’re not short of great ideas, but ideas aren’t innovation. Doing it is innovation.
Innovation for me is about organisational culture. It’s not things such as an ideas fund or permission to fail – they’re all pretty tactical. It’s about a mindset, a sense of ambition, a feeling of wanting to do things differently because business as usual isn't right, exciting or sustainable. It’s about believing passionately that the traditional fundraising model is broken and wanting to build a new, integrated model, one that's rooted in the mission and which truly connects people with the cause.
It’s also about trusting your team and giving them freedom. At WaterAid, we knew we needed to unleash our talent, so we removed the non-essential management processes that stifled innovation, such as the need for multiple managers to sign off on creative work. This might seem counter-intuitive in the face of increased regulation, but we set clear parameters, far beyond their perceptions of what they had been allowed to do previously, and trusted our talented staff to do the right thing. We’ve challenged them to think the outrageous and seemingly impossible, and then make it become a reality.
And this seems to be making us a little different. I’m often told that WaterAid does what others just talk about, and that the innovative thing is our thinking and just how we are. We’re not getting it entirely right yet, but we’ve got the attitude to keep on until we do.
Our sector needs to be more agile, responsive and adaptable to remain relevant. We can learn from the really innovative corporates, many of which focus on the five years and the five minutes, and don’t stress about mid-term plans. They articulate a clear vision of where they want to be in five years’ time and use this as their guiding star. Then they focus on the next five minutes that takes them a step towards their guiding star, always looking up to course-correct.
So I believe our sector’s biggest challenge, and opportunity, is itself. We need leaders to remove needless bureaucracy and silos between functions that get in the way. Mission trumps all. We need leaders who are less insular and more open to partnerships based on shared value, accepting that we don’t have all the answers. We need leaders who are more confident, bolder and braver, and who move on from talking about doing things differently to actually doing it.
Marcus Missen is director of communications and fundraising at WaterAid