The obstacle is the way

FIVE keys to help you find and adapt to opportunities in spite of the ongoing challenges.

With so much challenge and constant change in the last year, one of the books I’ve found especially helpful is Ryan Holiday’s The obstacle is the way.

The central, empowering theme is that challenging events can not only be seen as something to be survived, but also as something that can bring opportunity. Holiday suggests we should not merely ‘be positive’, but to strive to be creative and actively seek opportunity. The idea is not to exploit others, but to find advantage in some effect of the challenge itself.

Where possible, we should aim to make our response not ‘this is not so bad’, but ‘I can make this good.’ While undeniably there are many terrible consequences of the current pandemic, in my privileged position as a trainer, coach and podcaster, I’ve been fortunate to work with and interview many brave, creative fundraisers who have found a way to achieve breakthroughs and make immense progress in their fundraising.

In this blog, I am going to share five elements which I first shared at our recent Breakfast Club for Fundraising Leaders, and which I have found in most of the success stories I’ve studied in the last year.

I am not suggesting you are not already doing some or all of them – you almost certainly are, otherwise you would not still be in the game and finding time to keep learning! Rather, by highlighting them I hope it makes it easier for you to keep doing them, and to do this consciously, with even more determination, and indeed to be able to share your rationale with your colleagues.

1. Expect opportunities

Like many hospital charities, a challenge for Leeds Hospitals Charity at Christmas time is that the desire for people and businesses to help, sometimes comes in the form of donated presents which might not be suitable for patients.  The pandemic added a further complication – robust infection control protocols meant no gifts could be dropped at the hospital at all.  For years many hospital charities have struggled to solve this challenge and find an alternative way to still make the givers feel good.

In mid-September 2020 Laura Webb, Interim Head of Corporate Partnerships for the charity was intrigued to see Sheffield Children’s Hospital’s brilliant Snowflake Appeal on Facebook. With an incredibly short lead time – it was just a few weeks till December – Laura galvanised support within her charity and partner hospital to emulate the campaign, and the Sponsor the Sparkle campaign was born.

The chaos and challenges of the pandemic have brought various opportunities, and one of them has been an increased urgency in many charities to move decisively and make things happen more quickly than was typical before.

Not only did Laura and her colleagues manage to make the campaign happen in time, and solve the problem of no gifts being allowed to be delivered to the hospital, they also raised £35,000 in donations that could be spent on things that were needed, such as Christmas dinners and decorations, appropriate presents for all the demographics of patients, and taxis for staff working over Christmas. Half the companies sponsoring the stars were new supporters of the charity which presents a great opportunity for the charity to build and deepen these new relationships.

Furthermore, this initiative represents a wonderful asset that can be grown in the future.

2. Cross-pollinate

Laura got the inspiration for Sponsor the Sparkle from seeing what the innovative fundraisers at Sheffield Children’s Hospital had done. And they were extremely generous in sharing their learnings. The reason I work so hard to find real examples of smart, gritty fundraisers who manage to do really well in spite of the challenges, is that these ‘bright spot’ examples do not only help us get good ideas, even more importantly, they help us and our colleagues believe that taking these risks is worth the effort. The fact that Laura was able to share the example and learnings from Sheffield helped her organisation have faith that this was worth going for.

In my recent blog about the community fundraising and ultra-running strategies of the extraordinary Max Newton, I explore this powerful tactic of deliberately getting yourself access to an environment or group that is achieving the kinds of results you would like to achieve.

One reason we find that fundraisers who take part in our Mastery Programmes (in Corporate Partnerships and Major Gifts) and in our Bright Spot Members Club, is that we deliberately create lots of opportunities for cross-pollination, between attendees and through the many ‘bright spot’ examples we share, to show and learn from what is possible.

For instance, for eight years I’ve written blogs to share these examples of what is possible, and my podcast Fundraising Bright Spots, has more than 58 episodes where you can get inspired by other fundraisers’ ingenuity and resilience.

3. Take action, intelligently

In spite of or because of the short lead time, Laura galvanised herself, her colleagues and other stake-holders to take action. They made swift decisions and made the project happen. Sometimes unusual circumstances or crises make it feel more possible to act with urgency.

I was inspired by my recent interview with Hannah Carter, Managing Director of a small music charity called Ensemble Reza. You can hear the full story on Episode 57 of Fundraising Bright Spots. She too was helped in solving her challenges through cross-pollination. For example, she is a member of the Bright Spot Members Club, which she found helpful as she went about solving her charities’ many challenges. This included the decision to prioritise proactive communication to her community during the lockdowns in 2020, in particular to check people were OK; to say thank you (not to ask for money) and to add value (by setting up and growing an awesome You Tube presence).

And when she needed a way to make her first paying concert extra special (all the previous ones had been free to attend), she found the confidence to reach out, in a way that was both brave and intelligent, to invite Stephen Fry to narrate a poem to enhance the concert. One reason it worked is because she had heard the music in question was one of his favourite pieces.

4. See it as a journey

One problem with the word ‘pivot’ is it suggests just one change in direction, and a radical one at that. While this may have been needed for many of our activities in the last year, the need to adapt is not going to go away. I explore this idea in more depth, and how we can respond, in Episode 56 of my podcast.

The fundraisers I’ve

learned most from during the pandemic are the ones who see this process as an ongoing journey, not a single change in direction.

From early on, Laura realised the huge long-term potential of the Sponsor the Sparkle campaign, and is already making improvements to help achieve ambitious goals in the future. The more we can see the process as less about ‘having one great, perfectly formed idea’ or about making one critical pivot, and more as an ongoing process of testing and learning, the more likely we are to continue to make our fundraising activity relevant to whatever environment we face.

5. Nurture this kind of culture

If you’re a leader and you’re determined to help your charity create more of these kinds of results, this is the most important element! Its easy to get carried away by some of the stories of individual fundraisers who have a creative idea or make things happen.

As obvious as this sounds, it is in fact often hard to achieve in many charities. There may be many reasons whyas a team or department leader you want lots of control of what happens on the front line. But as the pace of change continually ramps up, creating ever less predictability than ever, it is essential that we create a culture where our people are trusted and empowered to respond to what is in front of them.

For some encouragement and ideas, I wrote this leadership / culture blog about the powerful way Joe Jenkins argued at a talk for the Bright Spot Members Club, that as effective leaders in this fast-changing and complex world, we need a leadership style that is more ‘nurturing gardener’ creating the kind of culture where people can think for themselves and solve the new problems, (and less the brilliant, ‘chess-master’ who has all the answers.)

And in Episode 23, Paul Mckenzie shares his approach to achieving this kind of culture through leadership during the pandemic.

Hang in there!

Dealing with ongoing uncertainty and continually evolving challenges is harder work than when the environment was more stable. It’s tiring and it’s not easy. But I hope these five elements and these examples can in some way help you keep adapting and even enjoy the process of finding some opportunities in all the challenges you face in 2021.

Would you like to access to the training and coaching that have helped Laura and Hannah?

If you’re curious about the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme which Laura attended, the Major Gifts Mastery Programme which Paul attended or the resources and live weekly masterclasses in the Bright Spot Members Club which both Hannah and Laura are benefiting from, just follow the links above.