Martyn Drake: Why aligning agendas is so important

It's an essential skill for communicators and charities across the board

Twice in the past two months I have been on the receiving end of the same question. Both times the question came from a trustee, informally over coffee, during board retreats in which diversity, or more accurately the lack of it, had been discussed. 

And both times the whispered misgiving was a variation on the old chestnut of whether diversity meant someone who was slightly less qualified but black should be recruited over someone slightly more qualified but white.

In both questions the subtext is pervasive: if there is a conflict between performance and diversity, which one should take precedence? 

In my experience, the mere framing of a question in this way suggests the person has already formed their view.

Banging the moral drum might make them feel chastened or misunderstood, but will likely make no difference whatsoever to their beliefs – that’s not how people work.

But exposing assumptions can raise awareness and sometimes prompt people to rethink. 

For example, assuming any disparity in qualifications would be in favour of the white candidate says something about prejudice. 

Or pointing out that you only appoint after an interview, and you generally only interview people who are qualified, so invariably that final balance is about who we believe in most, who we like most, who seems to match our values and with whom we will feel most comfortable, which takes us straight to biases and prejudice.

But even if that gets someone to stop resisting, it rarely results in them actively helping.

Worse than that, it gives a credence to the question it doesn’t deserve, because ultimately the premise of the question is a false dichotomy.

This is a common way of looking at the world – as one of trade-offs. 

It could just as easily be the trade-off between corporate profit and social responsibility, or fundraising versus ethics, or productivity versus employee wellbeing. 

None of these is really a trade-off. 

In each case the latter is an enabler of the former. One supports the other.

As I explained to those two trustees, both of whose organisations had not only noted, but had highlighted in their respective strategies, their difficulty accessing “hard to reach communities”, communities which, unsurprisingly, were represented in neither their teams nor their volunteers.

There was obviously no way either organisation could achieve their aims unless from top to bottom they became more representative of the communities with which they wanted to engage.

Even in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that meant bringing underqualified people in and training them up, it would be a no-brainer for something so mission-critical. 

It was this observation that hit the mark – not by dismantling their prejudice (that probably won’t happen until they see the difference for themselves) but by consciously aligning the need to actively pursue diversity with their own desire to achieve their expansion agenda.

Aligning agendas is an essential skill for communicators and influencers, and therefore for charities across the board. 

It has to be part of our armoury: to be able to help people understand that you cannot achieve A unless you work with us to address B; or at the very least, if together we can address B, you will be much more likely to achieve A.

Last month, “the morally right thing to do” would have been for the Chancellor to have listened to the 1,400 charity signatories calling for an uplift in grants and contracts for public services. 

Instead, the government predictably chose to spend the money on its own agenda, on what it says will drive the economy, or perhaps what it believes might get more voters’ or donors’ support.

This is a perfect example of absolutely well-meaning people banging an absolutely justifiable moral drum and having absolutely no effect on the intended audience, because we haven’t explicitly and directly connected it with that audience’s own agenda.

Folks, we need to stop “being disappointed” and start learning from this.

Whether this is about the importance of diversity in charities for delivering their missions, or the fundamental need to invest in public health and wellbeing in order to drive national productivity or get votes at the ballot box, aligning agendas will always be more powerful than pushing a moral cause. 

That may be sad, but it’s true.

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

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