The world is now so different – two ways to lead teams to match this new reality

Blog Updated 26th May 2017

On the evening of 18 March 2014, long after most people had gone home, someone in the social media team at CRUK spotted a number of people posting selfies to raise cancer awareness using the hashtag #NoMakeUpSelfie. Not only did she notice the trend, but she felt empowered to react and did so very quickly.

And by 9am the next morning her team had discussed the opportunity and gained organisational buy-in to respond. They posted a selfie of Dr Kat Arney, a science information officer at CRUK, holding a sign that said ‘We love your #NoMakeUpSelfie’ and that included a text code for donations.

Two weeks later, £10 million had been raised for CRUK by people posting #nomakeupselfies. It was not luck that enabled CRUK to not only spot, but also respond so quickly to this opportunity. Neither was it their size. Other large charities did not respond in time. Rather, CRUK’s success was largely thanks to a way of working that expects opportunities and threats to be fast and unpredictable.

Information now spreads faster and faster

One major challenge for charities is that the world in the 21st century is fundamentally different to the 20th Century.

If you have a meeting with a major donor, trust or potential partner at 9.30am tomorrow, it is quite possible that the tone of the meeting be influenced by a news story or rumour on social media that breaks at breakfast time. This might not only reduce the chances of the donor having a great meeting – it could equally be an opportunity in local or world events that would help you improve the meeting. Either way, will you know about the issues and feel empowered to respond?

To compete in the modern age, most successful companies have learned to be incredibly agile. As such they have higher expectations than ever for the speed at which a potential charity partner would need to take action.

Howard Lake from UK Fundraising explained that ‘not only is there now a twenty-four hour news culture, there is also a virality of the way news is shared. That means that a story that may or may not be grounded in truth, can now be shared and potentially misinterpreted more quickly than ever before.’

The world is becoming ever more unpredictable

And it’s not just about speed, events are now more interdependent, less predictable. Last summer my friend Mary was able to visit museums more often than in previous years because her two children were happy to tag along and search the exhibition spaces for virtual monsters as part of their Pokemon Go obsession. At a business seminar last year a technology expert told us that developments in virtual reality were on the way, but could anyone have predicted that this would mean more nine-year-old boys would visit museums in the summer holidays? What an opportunity if you were a museum that was ready to respond.

Driven by social and political factors, as well as by advances in technology, events are becoming both faster and more un-predictable. So it’s more important than ever that leaders in charities create cultures that are able to adapt and respond. How do you do this?

How can leaders in charities meet the challenge?

In a fascinating talk at a recent Breakfast Club for Directors of Fundraising, Joe Jenkins (formerly of Friends of the Earth and now at The Children’s Society) advised that charity leaders consider the leadership model explained by General Stanley McChrystal in the excellent Team of Teams. He suggests we need to create adaptable, empowered cultures in two particular ways:

  1. Shared consciousness – encourage people to think in terms of the overall goal, not artificial silos, and relentlessly encourage information to be shared across the organisation. (Because obviously any given donor may be able to give; or campaign; or talk to their friend who owns a company, etc, not just the one of these that most fundraisers are inclined to focus on).
  2. Devolved responsibility – empower everyone to think for themselves and take action. Because too many charities inadvertently encourage their people to play safe, slow and cautious.

It is true that this kind of leadership and culture will not happen without deliberate effort, but as people like Joe and Richard Turner, formerly of Solar Aid have shown, they are possible and bring jaw-dropping results. But to achieve these riches, you must decide on the culture you really must have, and deliberately cultivate that in the way you lead.
To sum up, Joe advised the following ‘The leaders who succeed in today’s world are not so much chess masters as gardeners. They nurture and empower, creating the thriving environment in which their people can do what is needed to achieve the mission’.

As part of the Commission on the Donor Experience, we recently interviewed 15 high-achieving, donor-focussed leaders to understand what they do differently. A fascinating pattern emerged of the three things these fundraising leaders put most of their energy into. (‘Promoting a particular kind of culture’ as described in today’s blog, is the third of these three Key Leadership Priorities.

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