Most non-profit origin stories are fascinating tales of passionate people.
People who’ve seen or personally experienced a social need and felt driven to meet it, often by pioneering an innovative service, a new intervention, a different way of raising funds or influencing a target audience.
Passionate people who somehow carved out the time, scrounged up the resources, took the risk and made something happen.
But how much of the need did those founders ever meet? What happens to those charities after the exciting opening chapter of their story ends?
Usually, their income and impact follows what’s technically called a Sigmoidal curve, or S-curve for short, which looks a lot like the first half of a bell curve.
In essence, a slow start, then traction, the growth of impact and income, then, as time goes by, the growth slows and flattens off.
The S-curve is a common feature of innovation and it’s a pretty reliable predictor of how most businesses and non-profits start, grow, then plateau.
It’s tempting to think that the flattening growth we see time and again is only to be expected: there’s a limit to how much the world needs any given product or service, and once that need has been met, naturally the growth will stop.
But, while that might be the founder’s dream, it’s never the reality.
The reasons for the plateau can be many and varied, but it’s never for a lack of need. Loss of focus, of leadership, of key people; changing expectations and priorities; underinvestment; failure to evolve; these are far more often the real characters in the story.
Charities and businesses alike appear to find their natural limits, not because they’ve met all the need, but because they’ve become trapped, fixed in their models and ideas, scrapping it out for resources, contracts, market share, income; for the fuel required just to stay on the plateau.
The way out of the trap is as obvious as you’d expect: to get off the plateau you need another breakthrough innovation, one that readjusts to meet changing or emerging needs, or finds new models and approaches that bypass the barriers and unlock the next phase of expansion.
The problem is that by the time you’re settled on the plateau, the innovators have usually left the building – delivery has overtaken everyone’s day job.
There’s no spare capacity to step back from the scrap, to look beyond what you do today, to think about different ways to reconnect with your real purpose and to imagine a future off the plateau.
The best time to start innovating is always, always when you’re in the growth phase: as your first S-curve starts flattening, you want the next one to be already taking off. But, just like the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.
So, consider: which parts of your organisation are stuck on the plateau, not because you’ve met all the need, but because you don’t have the ideas, the fuel or the people to push you onto the next stage of increasing impact and income?
And within that list, where is the best opportunity for you to carve out the time, scrounge up the resources and take the risk to kick-start your next big S-curve?
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting