Martyn Drake: Don't miss this opportunity for scary, transformational thinking

The tipping-point decisions charities make in the wake of the pandemic will have lasting implications for us all

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

In the past few weeks, more and more charities have started to approach their “tipping points” in viability. Many have finally started to accept that their pre-pandemic operating models will simply not be affordable within their forecast post-pandemic financials.

Some have yet to commit to taking steps, but their clocks are audibly ticking. Others have already taken large, publicly announced strides to reduce costs, but even they may find they have to do it all again in a few months if it turns out they’ve “shaved democratically” instead of “amputating strategically”.

The mindset that drives the latter is that of the threadbare tailor: we think about “cutting our coat according to the size of our cloth” when, at times like this, what we need to be asking is “do we actually need a coat at all?”

Times of great change create unique opportunities to embrace great change in our response. And it is big innovation and radical, scary thinking that offers us a route for using today’s challenges to drive tomorrow’s solutions.

Some charities have already demonstrated the potential for doing this tactically: shifting events, commerce and campaigning online; capitalising on the wave of public volunteering; building new relationships with funders, influencers and social media royalty – who wouldn’t want a Marcus Rashford in their corner right now?

But the greater opportunity is to take this transformational thinking to a strategic level: thinking innovatively and differently about what your organisation does, what it is for and how it can achieve its aims in entirely different ways.

Evolutionary thinking starts with your pre-pandemic organisation, whereas transformational thinking starts with your post-pandemic aspiration for the communities you exist to serve. It starts by asking what success looks like for them; what life, society, the world realistically needs to become in order for them to broadly get the outcomes they need. 

It moves on by working out what the building blocks are of that vision and what would need to be in place for it to be realised. And it looks beyond the obvious for alternatives and other means. Where it sees government funding as a prerequisite, it asks: “What if that doesn’t come? Is there any other way that this could happen? What if…?”

Transformational thinking is about reframing those big building blocks of future-vision into problems that we can then work, with others, to solve.

Digitisation, for example, has been on charities’ agendas for years, but for the most part it’s there because charities feel they should be doing it, rather than because it’s the only way to deliver their missions. Which is why the questions they’ve asked themselves have been entirely evolutionary: how can we use technology from the mainstream, or from our own IT team, to digitise the stuff we currently do? 

What they ought to be thinking about instead is parcelling up those big, building-block problems and asking questions such as: “What would Google do? If we gave this whole problem to a community of students who’ve spent the past 10 years messing about on GitHub, building apps, games and mods for fun, how would they approach it? And why don’t we find out?”

These are the questions that can lead to transformational change, not driven from behind by threatening necessity, but drawn towards by inspiring opportunity.

Transformational thinking can be scary because it threatens those things we’ve always done, those things that, for many of our teams, define the organisation. It also forces us to think about partnerships, alliances and much wider collaborations, recognising that we can’t change the world for our beneficiaries on our own. 

And, ultimately, it makes us realise that our future should not be defined by what we can do alone, much less by what we’ve always done, but by what only we can do and what others can do for us, with us and instead of us.

These tipping-point decisions will have lasting implications, not just for the people who go, but for the people who stay. Just as nobody goes to work to do a bad job, nobody aspires to work in a diminishing organisation, managing a decline and hoping merely for the return of a more glorious past. We all want to be moving forwards, making a greater difference tomorrow than yesterday. 

So, before you take the scissors to your cloth, ask yourself what is the purpose that this new garment needs to serve and how can you entirely reimagine it to better serve that purpose?

Because if the future you’re envisaging doesn’t give you the scope to make a greater impact and a more profound contribution, if it doesn’t enable you to focus on new things that will move the world closer to your vision, you might just have missed the biggest opportunity of this pandemic.

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

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