What with Wimbledon and the European Championship now behind us, I’ve been thinking about what lessons in success sport can offer charities.
A good proportion of sport is about challenge and conflict. And when players are feeling under attack, the instinct can be to change their game to a defensive one. In terms of charity finances, a defensive game often involves cutting back in important areas like trustee and staff training, improvements to IT systems, business development, raising funds or—more drastically—by reducing staffing. But there is a real danger that such cuts will actually reduce your capacity to ‘win’—to deliver work that makes a difference for your beneficiaries. And they may even have the opposite of the desired effect: reducing your income and your financial sustainability.
Sporting successes show us that defensiveness is rarely a winning formula. In the same way as some of the winning tennis players and football teams did this year, charities need to keep their eyes on the prize and continue with a bold strategy. This, of course, involves risk.
So what does an offensive game look like?
In sporting terms you would ‘take the game to your opponents’—actively engaging with the challenges before you. In organisations with a social purpose, that translates as stakeholder engagement. Successful organisations stay in touch with a range of stakeholders, whether they are clients or funders. They understand what they need and want and so are able to win support and funding for programmes that are valued and make a difference. Because the risk of becoming disconnected from our stakeholders is common to virtually all organisations, an engagement strategy is also a risk mitigation tactic.
Most organisations face challenges to their financial health, but it’s important that you tackle the right components of this. For example, there is little point in making cuts to a programme that is funded by restricted grants, as income will be clawed back. You need to dig into the roots of your finances and understand whether you are actually ‘expensive’. This may be due to the way you operate, it may reflect poor productivity, it may mean that you need to make better use of technology. It is likely that answers to such questions will be found by bringing together financial and non-financial data.
Taking on risk in the pursuit of success is where a good team pulls together. Different players need to cooperate to lift your organisational game. You need to listen carefully to the person who is pointing out poor performance, wasteful practices and out-dated ways of working. But you also need the players who can connect to your stakeholders and get your messages across.
In tricky times it is easy to end up falling back to defending your base- or goal-line, but with the right coordination and daring, you can break through to a win.