Martyn Drake: The biggest barrier to our potential is between our own ears

If we want our organisations to rapidly recover from the battering of 2020, we need to fundamentally rethink our attitudes to investment, ambition and talent

I might have missed it in previous governments, but the the brazen public denigration of “do-gooders” from two of the highest offices in the land does seem to be a novel turn of events.

Though the source may be worryingly new, the sentiment has been around in popular culture almost forever. 

The recent attempt to neuter the footballer Marcus Rashford, because he is both wealthy and leading a social justice campaign, is just the latest in a long line of examples. Thankfully, Rashford seems more than capable of shrugging it off. 

In the opening chapter of my book I share a similar example of a charity chief executive who’d hit the tabloid headlines over her salary. 

In the same year, the editor of that paper drew a salary more than seven times as high, for running an organisation of 40 per cent the size and a fraction of the complexity of hers; strangely, that didn’t feature in the story. 

But even if readers had been aware of the comparison and context, would they have cared? Would they have seen the editor or the paper as hypocritical? 

No, because of this deeply ingrained and routinely reinforced binary belief that you can make as much money as you like just as long as it doesn’t benefit other people – because poverty is virtue, and therefore wealth plus “do-gooding” must mean hypocrisy. 

And so, myriad variations on the cynical: “How can you say you care about the homeless when you live in a big house?” continue to plague anyone who wants to uplift others.

The real problem, though, is that we clearly don’t seem to be as good as Rashford at shrugging this rubbish off. 

Because it’s not just swathes of the public that hold this belief; a great many people in the sector, whether consciously or unconsciously, hold this same poverty mindset. 

It manifests in the sector’s profound silence over salaries; its hesitancy to invest in itself and its people; its enduring aversion to risk; and in the talent it thereby drives away from solving society’s greatest challenges.

It is the primary driver behind the chronic underinvestment in infrastructure right across the third sector; its obsession with reducing overheads to the point of dysfunction; its disinclination to tackle either of these fully and forcefully with its funders; and its consequent vulnerability to shocks like the one we’ve just experienced. 

And yes, it’s ultimately there in the sector’s own, self-undermining mistrust of its large organisations, and its deep-seated cynicism toward those ambitious few, from among its own ranks, who aspire to become far bigger, bolder and better.

Every time I hear someone from the sector tell me that another organisation’s growth ambitions stem purely from vanity, a little piece of my soul dies. 

Small is beautiful. Poor is prerequisite. Threadbare is essential. We seriously need to get past this stuff. Your cause is worth more than that. Your people are worth more than that. 

You are worth more than that.

If we want our organisations to rapidly recover from the battering of 2020, we need to fundamentally rethink our attitudes to investment, ambition and talent. 

We need to embrace a more entrepreneurial outlook, of risk and return, of big aspirations for big growth in the service of even bigger reach and impact, and we need to be brave enough to invest in the skills and loosen the reins to make that happen.

Above all, we need to drop the mentality of poverty and consciously cultivate a mindset of plenty, because there is plenty of opportunity: to rapidly grow income, radically increase reach, deliver far more impact. 

Plenty of great ideas – if we’re prepared to take a risk. Plenty of great talent – if we’re prepared to invest. Plenty of money out there – if we’re prepared to be innovative. 

The biggest barrier to our potential is between our own ears, and it’s the easiest one of all to fix.

This has been a uniquely challenging year, but next year has everything to play for. Approach it like a penitential ritual, in sackcloth and ashes, and it will be every bit as tough. 

But approach it with unbridled enthusiasm for the huge opportunity it represents, with a mindset of plenty and a sackload of ambition, self-belief and self-worth, and it will be the making of your organisation.

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