Planning your way out of a bag

This fourth and final selected chapter is taken from the long-awaited 2nd edition of The Porcupine Principle, the bestselling fundraising book by Jonathan de Bernhardt Wood who is Director of Giving for the Church of England. This chapter is available to read for one week.

Often charities are not very good at being self-critical. We feel uneasy about being critical of work when, due to its very nature, the people concerned cannot separate themselves from the people-centred nature of their work. For that reason, to criticise their work is to criticise them. As a result, charities can sometimes be the last organisations to confront bad practice, which is ironic really because, bearing in mind how important our work is, we should be the first to do so. 

One of the frustrations of being a fundraiser is that people will watch you like a hawk, while being a blind chicken where their own work is concerned. Here is a true example. I worked for a charity that was creating a truly innovative project. It was a telephone counselling service. It would run on a Sunday, because that was apparently often the most difficult day of the week for the client group. Trained volunteers would run this dedicated telephone line. The media absolutely loved this story. It had everything: a bit of suffering, a noble and worthy charity, people giving their time to help others. The publicity for it was amazing; all the media we approached ran the story. The launch day dawned, and during that day the charity received two calls all day. The following Sunday there were no calls. The Sunday after that, there were again no calls. Then the project was pulled. 

The thing is that the people who came up with this project were really great people, excellent professionals, utterly dedicated and inspiring. However, the lack of project management skills meant that they were seriously ill-equipped to set up a new project like this. Yet setting up projects is exactly what fundraisers are about, because we do it all the time. Have a look at this: 

As you can see, the processes for planning a sumo- wrestling event are the same as for starting a debt advice line or establishing a drop-in centre for bereaved people, or a pets’ hospital, or an after-school club, or a soup run and so on. You get the picture. For many people who work for charities, the establishment of a new piece of work is a relatively rare phenomenon. It is normally the same old same old, and a good thing too. People’s needs do not change that quickly, nor do the best means of meeting them, and too much change can be disorientating. There are some times, though, when practice should be changed or a new project should begin. In these cases, surely it makes sense to use the skills and experience of those who establish projects on a daily basis? 

The reasons that fundraisers’ project planning experience is rarely used are various and complex. Sometimes fundraisers do not have the confidence to do it. Sometimes they do not actually realise that they are experts in project development and management; they do not reflect enough to realise this. Sometimes other charity staff merely tolerate fundraisers and want as little to do with them as possible. Whatever the reason, by keeping fundraisers away from the charity’s core activity, the ones who lose out are the ones that the charity is supposed to be helping. 

When I became Chief Executive of a charity that runs a special needs school, there was a fair bit of tutting and sighing within the special needs field. How on earth could someone who wasn’t a teacher – was in marketing, for heaven’s sake – possibly lead an educational charity and, more specifically, a school? Being a Yorkshireman, I have always been quite blunt and my reply was ‘By being a better business, we will be a better school.’ It does not fit with what some imagine a school to be, but as the days passed, I grew more convinced that it is true. By researching what the needs are, working out how most effectively to meet those needs, recruiting and training the right staff, making sure the service provision is all affordable, ensuring people know about what we do, ensuring we deliver what we said we would, and checking our effectiveness and periodically reviewing things, I am instilling key disciplines that all successful organisations need. The same can be true throughout just about every charity, providing the charity will let fundraisers loose with their project management skills. In view of the fact that this will make a charity’s work better, it is a scandal that it does not happen all the time 

The Porcupine Principle is now published, order your copy here.