Martyn Drake: What charities can learn from Amazon

For better or worse, the company has had a transformational impact on retail

It’s hard to be dispassionate and objective, let alone radically honest, when it comes to a charity’s services.

We’re often too close, too invested in the people and the model to look objectively at what others do, what they would deliver if we weren’t around, and what we’re actually bringing to the party that’s genuinely unique… if anything.

So, let me start with a more objective, but equally relevant story: Amazon.

For better or worse, Amazon has had a transformational impact on retail. But even though it’s bigger than ever, its incremental impact has waned enormously over recent years.

There was a time when it was just about the only major online retailer. Back then, in the early 90s, it was pretty much unique – nobody else came close.

Even when others joined the space, Amazon was the pacesetter for well over a decade, driving every bricks-and-mortar retailer to develop their online stores, speed up deliveries, build in consumer reviews, recommendation algorithms and so on.

Then, as mainstream retail slowly caught up, Amazon expanded into a whole range of niches and geographies – wherever the competition was weak, it moved in.

Whether you’re delighted or devastated by its impact in those niches is irrelevant to the insights it offers because, while Amazon is the great example, this isn’t a uniquely “Amazon” thing; it’s a “how competitive markets work” thing.

But coming back to Amazon, most of those niches have now closed. For almost everything Amazon sells today, there are a dozen other places online that offer pretty much the same product with the same ease and simplicity.

Amazon’s only real relevance now, irrespective of its size, is as the price-setter for mass-market commodities.

That’s just about all the “incremental” impact it still has – it is basically trading on the habits and loyalty of past glory and, unless it comes up with a whole new world of retail innovation, it will continue to drift away from retail relevance.

That might sound like a bold statement, but the justification is this: if Amazon disappeared tomorrow, pretty much all of its customers would be getting everything they get now, just from different online retailers.

Other than, perhaps, a slight increase in price, within a few weeks, would any of them actually notice the difference?

That’s the big question we need to bring back to our own world.

So, using those stages of Amazon’s journey as a framework, you can ask more objectively: what is the true incremental impact of your charity’s services, right now? Where are you, honestly, on that Amazon continuum?

Is what you’re doing genuinely unique, pioneering a fundamentally different way of doing things, offering outcomes that nobody else can touch?

Or is it in competition but leading the market, setting the pace, continually driving up standards and expectations, the single reference point that everyone else is chasing?

Or are you happily working in a gap or a niche – operating in a space that the Amazons of your world haven’t spotted yet, secure only until one shows up next door?

Or are you already scrapping it out in a commoditised market, delivering little that the next in line couldn’t do just as well? Be honest: might you, too, be coasting away from relevance, clinging to your own past glories?

This is the truly dispassionate, objective way to think about impact – not the difference you might make in a vacuum, but the difference you make in the real world, versus the organisation that just lost out on the bid, or the one that just opened five miles away.

These are the essential questions for all service delivery charities:

  • What is your incremental impact?
  • Why do you need to exist?
  • Who would miss you if you were gone?

Time, skills, effort, money; these are all precious things. Shouldn’t we be spending them in a way that can make a genuine, incremental difference?

Is it time for some radical honesty about your own service portfolio?

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

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