Martyn Drake: We need to talk about selling

You can have the most effective ideas in the world, but if you can’t sell them, they won’t benefit anyone

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

If ever the point needed to be made about the importance of sales skills to the sector, it was on a video call with a major charity a few weeks ago. 

We were reviewing their past innovations: some that had succeeded and many that had failed to get off the ground.

And as we discussed one particular service pilot, the commissioners of which had lauded the impact but been unwilling to fund it any further, I noticed one of the attendees looking off to one side – a tell-tale indicator of something more interesting on her second screen. 

A couple of minutes later, she shared what she’d been looking at – another charity had recently announced they’d been commissioned to deliver something almost identical. “I thought it sounded familiar,” she exclaimed, “and that’s not all – they actually quoted our research in the press release.”

“Clearly they’re better at selling than they are at researching,” came the derisive response; the tone emphatically illustrating the stark difference in esteem with which those two disciplines were viewed.

This is a common trait, and one that stems from a single, deeply-held belief: that charities exist to help people, not to sell to them. The former is moral, the latter, manipulative – we all know that becoming a salesperson demands we sell-out our values, our missions, and ultimately, our souls. 

This single belief holds the whole sector back. A lack of sales expertise, cemented-in by a further lack of any appetite to develop it, is usually the single biggest barrier to scaling innovation, increasing reach, and expanding social impact. 

It also speaks directly to the cultural divide that exists, almost palpably, within many charities, between those who bring in the money, and those who do the good things. 

There’s always a nicer view from the moral high ground, but how many more people like those in that charity’s pilot service could have been helped? How many more lives improved if they’d been able to sell the investment as effectively as they’d delivered the interventions? 

You can create the best, most impactful programmes in the world, but they won’t help anyone if you’re not prepared to sell them with confidence, passion and expertise.

There is a unique taboo around such skills in the social sector that prevents us from talking about them and thereby, from understanding what they really are, what they’re for, and how pivotal they can be in growing impact. 

The job of a good salesperson is not to fleece fools of their money, but to help people work out what they need, what the best solution for them would be, and by asking, listening, counselling and engaging, to move people to act, in their own and in others’ best interests. 

With the right skills and values, selling can be an impactful service in its own right; one that helps people to become more informed, make better choices and get better outcomes. If a service makes a genuine difference to people’s lives, selling it proficiently is not merely an ethical pursuit, it’s a moral imperative.

And yet, I’ve met fewer than a hundred people across the sector who’ve been formally trained in sales – and most of those are only there because I trained them.

And that’s such a shame, because so many charities will never be able to access the opportunity and the impact those skills could unlock, as long as selling itself remains such a misunderstood and culturally taboo topic within the sector.

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


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