Peter Stanford: Lessons in pitching for a business partnership

Our columnist is not cut out for "upmarket chugging"

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Successful business chiefs often keep themselves sharp and in touch by abandoning their office suites in corporate HQ and doing stints on the shop floor. My attic office in north-west London will never quite merit being called a suite, but I've always thought this principle was a good one. So when I was drafted in as a last-minute substitute for our absent chief executive on a pitch to John Lewis partners, I donned Aspire's corporate purple and gave it my all.

The brief was to be an upmarket chugger. As 80 or so John Lewis partners gathered in a hotel, we mingled and tried to convince them to vote for us as their national charity of the year - as did our two rivals. The vote was to be taken at the end of the meeting.

The purple seemed to go down well, though the representatives from Beating Bowel Cancer turned more heads than us with their fetching striped boxers and false buttocks. Unlike your average chugger, we did at least have a captive audience, but plenty of them still managed to decline my polite invitation to ask questions. It was a lesson in rejection: good for the soul in the long term.

Other lessons? Well, more food for the soul was the realisation that the chairman seemed to be the last person any of our target audience wanted to talk to. By far our most successful chugger was Paula Craig, a police superintendent who is the only woman to have competed in the London Marathon both as an able-bodied athlete and as a wheelchair user. I'd rather talk to Paula than to me. The only problem was that she had no hope of getting round all 80 delegates before the vote.

The whole experience also reminded me of that natural hierarchy that asserts itself every time you try to pitch a charity. There are some causes that just press the buttons for donors. I may have mentioned before that I'm not a pet lover, so the appeal of animal charities puzzles me. Also in the top flight are children, Aids charities and anything to do with bricks and mortar. Am I sounding bitter? I don't mean to. Compared with trying to get people enthused about the rehabilitation of ex-offenders - as I sometimes do with another hat on - even disability is an easy sell.

I must have been spending too much time at the trustee table, though, because I did inwardly flinch every time I had to tell a chuggee how likely they were to suffer a spinal injury. There's no time for PC language and high principles at the coalface. "It could happen to any of us any time": I trotted it out with the best of them.

I can tell you want to know the result of the voting. Thankfully they didn't do it like Strictly Come Dancing, with us all under a spotlight waiting to be eliminated. There were, though, a few butterflies and a dose of adrenaline. Shame on me for being so competitive, but there it is.

We came second. Cancer is obviously higher on that list of 'could happen to me' causes than spinal injury. And to be fair, Beating Bowel Cancer played a blinder in those shorts. Next time, perhaps we should bare our bums, one of my colleagues joked as we left. I might leave that pitch to our younger, trimmer chief executive.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust


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