The twin motivators of reward and punishment run through virtually every book of the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an, and the carrot-and-stick concept has shaped centuries of western social policy. Even today, it influences how most people manage their children and most organisations manage their people.
That some still reference its omissions – for Brexiteers without a plan or commissioners without a conscience – shows the lasting power of Dante’s forbidding portrait of infernal punishment.
In contrast, modern coaching techniques focus on reward: imagine the ideal future; visualise the ball flying between the posts.
The desire to avoid being last in a competition might motivate training for a few weeks, but the path to peak performance is built squarely on positive vision and ambition.
Non-profits often embody a curious mix of the two motivations. In vision and mission statements, charities are rarely short of positive ambition.
But internally, in strategy and in day-to-day decisions, it’s often the avoidance of negative consequences that shapes the action plan. And that’s not good.
Charities are always in competition, not just with each other for income and donations, but with other messages for share of attention, with other priorities for political influence, with other commitments for volunteers’ time.
In any competition, some will innovate and their performance will raise the bar for everyone else. The rest will inevitably need to change if they want to stay in the game, but the opportunity that they’ve missed in the meantime is lost forever.
Commercial retail is a prime example. In 1996, Boots had an online store before most other retailers had even thought about it.
It was one of the first to launch an electronic loyalty card, to go mobile, to put iPads in the hands of its staff.
Boots didn’t wait until it needed to change; it changed because it wanted to lead. The leaders, like Boots, have continually raised the bar on customer expectations; the sloth of the rest is being punished, and many must feel like they’re going through hell.
Yet throughout that revolution, one part of the retail sector has barely changed at all: charity shops have survived almost untouched by the technological transformation.
Performance is steady, even though just a fraction of their trade goes online and few have sophisticated systems.
Even fewer dare to dream of a system that combines a person’s purchasing patterns, donated goods history, online, social, campaign and service interactions, to nudge them into a committed, valuable and lasting supporter or volunteer relationship.
Most charity retailers probably won’t change until they absolutely must, but the opportunities they are missing could be vast. If change is inevitable, must we wait for the pain to start?
The lessons are there, right across the charity landscape. Many have had to find new ways to cover grant income as it’s been steadily cut away.
And many of them have succeeded, not just by winning contracts, but also by finding new sources of funding, both voluntary and earned, through innovation and enterprise.
Why didn’t they do it before? The honest answer is probably because they didn’t need to. Yet most of those opportunities were always there and thus years of potential income went unrealised.
The negative option is to wait for the pain, then try to react to stay in the game. But that approach reaps no reward beyond survival.
The positive option is to seize that vision, to lead the way with urgency and ambition, to unlock the organisation’s full potential, sooner rather than later.
Where could ambitious, visionary leadership realise the greatest rewards for your operation and for those it exists to serve?
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting