Martyn Drake: How can we change the voluntary sector?

It's easy to get frustrated and to start to think about giving up on big ideas

“The sector needs to change. We all know it. So why won’t it?”

This question, or others very like it, are the ones I typically hear from many of the most forward-looking, ambitious leaders I meet in the non-profit space. 

I was asked it again this very week, this time by a frustrated serial social entrepreneur, who had approached a whole variety of large charities with an innovative, on-mission idea that she needed partners to help deliver, with only one, single success.

It’s also a strikingly similar question to the one I often get asked, with equal frustration, by some of my for-profit clients, particularly those trying to bring really innovative solutions to their own business customers. 

It’s not a coincidence. The single biggest challenge for entrepreneurs and change-makers alike, irrespective of the sector they’re in, is how to get other people to see the value of their ideas.

Often the hardest part is understanding why one or two people are really enthusiastic, but then you meet half a dozen more and they simply can’t see the potential. 

I’ve seen the same disappointment, frustration, and even despair, in the eyes of my clients’ sales teams when one prospect after another, all of whom looked ideal on paper, just “didn’t get it”, no matter what the team said.

And I see it now, in the eyes of inspiring, purpose-driven leaders, who desperately want other non-profits to join them, work with them, or partner with them to change the world. 

It’s easy to get frustrated, disheartened, and to think about giving up on the idea. 

Don’t.

Instead, stop. Step back. And think differently about your audience.

In 1991, Geoffrey A. Moore wrote what would become his seminal work: Crossing the Chasm. It was written for the sales teams of US technology start-ups, but its central premise has thankfully transcended that rather niche audience.

The premise is that people, and thereby the organisations they represent, fall into categories along a bell-curve of adoption for new ideas.

A bright-eyed few are natural innovators – they are fascinated by new ideas for their intrinsic value alone; some, about a sixth of the market, are early adopters – enthusiastic about pushing the boundaries. 

A larger number (about a third) form the early majority – happy to leap once it’s proven somewhere else; another third forms the late majority – driven by necessity more than opportunity. 

The final sixth is the “laggards” group, who will change only when there’s no other option.

You can apply it to individuals as well. What group would you put yourself in when you look at, say, when you first got a smartphone, started shopping online, switched to an electric vehicle?

The point is that each of these groups is different. Not just because they want different things, but because they see the world in different ways, and make choices based on a different set of principles and beliefs.

The early majority will not engage until they can see the success in some early adopters. The late majority won’t engage until it’s clear that pretty much everyone is heading your way. You can’t change this. You can’t control it. You can only learn from it.

And what you can learn are three things:

First, that their rejection is no reflection on you or your idea, it’s a reflection of where they sit on the curve. 

Second, that you will only find success with the group that is ready to engage, and that will entirely depend on how established your idea is. 

And third, that if you pay attention, you can quickly identify into which groups different people and organisations will fall and save yourself a helluva lot of time and emotional energy.

And so, the answer to the question, “how do you change a sector?” It’s like the old aphorism about eating an elephant. You change it one ready-and-willing group at a time.

You just need to recognise which group will be ready for you, at this particular time.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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