Aren’t We All Stuck, Stuck, Stuck?

There is an art movement called Stuckism after Bill Childish a figurative artist was accused by his conceptual art colleague of being, “…stuck, stuck, stuck.” Founded in 1999 by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, it promotes figurative painting as opposed to conceptual art. Having said that, I have a completely different sort of stuckism in mind.

We all know that businesses run in cycles. At first, they take off slowly then gain strength and hopefully grow rapidly until they have saturated the market, been emulated by competitors or overtaken by new more advanced products. At which point, unless action is taken, the cycle turns and their income drops as fast after the pound after the Brexit vote.

Today, haven’t many of our major charities got to the top of the business cycle and are now stuck there waiting for the inevitable? They can’t change their product very much – British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, Salvation Army, etc. No matter that organisations like Avaaz.org, Change.org and 38Degrees have built completely different models of charities, and fast catching up on their flank are the millennials running social enterprises based in the numerous Impact Hubs and other brilliant incubators around the world. Their market is saturated – membership of yet another charity anyone? And people’s way of giving is changing rapidly to a practice of giving immediately and effortlessly when they learn of a problem (as Comic Relief is noticing), joining an organisation is so last century and the last thing they want in return is a newsletter. Is there a major charity in the UK that doesn’t have a set of competitors, that are arguably equally valid recipients of our philanthropic largesse?

Regulation, though we are steadily learning to live with it, has become a handy excuse for the downturn in our income and yes, it is also another reason that the business cycle today is so treacherous; but it is the result of our struggle to overcome the cycle by increasing the pressure on our agencies (and so on our donors) instead of innovating. It may not be the underlying cause of our problems.

Earlier this week, I talked to a great group of South Korean fundraisers from one of their top children’s charities. They had come to the UK looking for inspiration because they have been doing everything right for many years, but further growth for them is now challenging, and it is clear (at least to me) they are at the top of their business cycle about to fall off. They will probably get some good advice and may even keep their income increasing for a while, but that situation calls for radical change. Fortunately, in Korea that change is possible if they can pivot their fundraising towards the very wealthy individuals that they, in common with us, have rapidly evolved in recent years.

That set me thinking that many of us are in the same situation, and whilst technological change diverts us into thinking the next big thing is just around the corner, we cannot conceive of the radical change we really need.

So, what can we do to change this? I think there are five levers we can use to affect change and we probably need to use them all:

  1. The staff – staff are always key to fundamental change. There are times when the last thing we want is people who will change our well-oiled machines, but right now we probably need disrupters at the top who have a new vision and who can set that out clearly, convince others (trustees, staff and volunteers) it is the right way to go and see it through to the sunny uplands.

    They need to have a compelling vision of a new future and that may be most likely found in the minds       of millennials who are not tied to years of direct mailing like many baby-boomers. A sea change here could usher in significant change which might just be based on disruption shaking up old working patterns.

  2. The mission – I put staff before mission as they can change or modify the cold dead hand of the mission on the organisations’ tiller. In times of rapid change this flexibility can be liberating.

    For example, Amnesty International had its ‘mandate’ which could only be altered by its unwieldy international executive council. “During the early 1990s, the limitations of a narrow approach dominated. However, as the Cold War faded and the number of prisoners of conscience declined, new sources of influence and rationales for raising funds became an organizational necessity. Amnesty had to redefine itself” from NGO Monitor. In 2007 the organisation was free to work on the full spectrum of human rights, freeing it to campaign and raise funds on the key issues of the day.

  3. The marketing – when you are in a hole it is very hard to stop digging, and sometimes it is even harder when the hole is still coming up with the goods, albeit fewer and fewer year by year. The huge funds traditionally deployed in marketing often lead to fundraising rather than communications defining the organisation for the public. If, however, we are to put a new generation in control and open-up their horizons they will need the funds to pivot their marketing and fundraising into new zones, and it may well be marketing that is robbed to provide the funds for this. A period of change, even acute pain, is likely before the new paths prove themselves.
  4. The fundraising – this is the last area in which you want any stickiness. “Follow the money” works in uncovering all kinds of crimes and mysteries shouldn’t it be second nature to us fundraisers? Yet, we all know that the money has moved into the hands of the wealthy few and increasingly to entrepreneurs not landed gentry, so the pitch is becoming more transactional, and increasingly based on impact to show how a very significant donation can make a large difference, and how they can help us scale up not just replace lost government or other revenue.

    Sometimes a lack of ambition is the thing to guard against, when working with the very rich; and a reason why we need to pull levers 1 to 3 first so that the organisation is ready and willing to grow rapidly. Indeed, so that it can even think of expansion not just managing steady contraction. There is no lack of money out there it is just may not be where we are fishing.

  1. The internet – The last of the levers but by no means the least. Unicorns continue to bubble up, fuel its expansion, invade our lives and change how we use the net and the net uses us. Next up may be smart AI taking over our jobs at a time when society is less than prepared for mass unemployment.

The lever may not be best pulled, however, by merely taking advantage of each new game in town; but in asking our millennials to re-think the charity from top to bottom. Given our new open missions how do we best deliver services, campaign and raise the funds we need to scale up globally. Do we need offices? What sort of use should we put our databases to? What leverage can we exert on our beneficiaries behalf to permanently change their circumstances? Should we even be a charity with all its restrictions?

It could be time to ask some fundamental questions with nothing left off or under the table. Sure as hell, the business cycle is rolling and we are none of us immune.

Let’s not be stuck, stuck, stuck or we will be dead, dead, dead.

John Baguley, Chair Group IFC, groupifc.com