Last night I had the privilege to speak at the Resource Alliance’s Future Leaders Programme in Oxford, UK. The Future Leaders Programme is aimed at mid-level managers with a fundraising responsibility and is particularly designed to equip them with the skills and tools they need to become the social impact leaders of tomorrow. It is a highly sought after programme, delivered in inspiring surroundings, so needless to say I was honoured to be asked to be a part of a panel discussing different aspects of leadership and fundraising.
Below is the short speech that I delivered as part of yesterday evening’s events:
When I first received the brief for this event I noted particularly that Resource Alliance wanted me to talk about the challenges of being a CEO, from the fundraising perspective. So I sat down and started writing out my thoughts. After a couple of pages I looked back at what I’d written and realised that it was all rather negative and that it might have the opposite impact to what was intended: none of you would want to be fundraising leaders.
So I thought again about what it is that you have gathered here to learn this week and what you need to hear from me, what I would need to hear if I was sitting where you are now, and I started again. And that is the first thing to keep in mind: fundraisers raise money for other people’s needs, and tailor that fundraising to the needs of supporters and donors in order to make that fundraising successful. It is also one of the most important things that a leader needs to be able to do: understand what someone else wants or needs, from their point of view; and then find a win-win solution that can accommodate what your stakeholders need. Not an easy task. I once heard this kind of leadership referred to as Legislative Leadership, the kind that you find in politics, where many different stakeholders and points of view need to be brought around a table and agreement reached that satisfies all parties. Leaders in NGOs, charities, social enterprises, in fact in any kind of social impact organisation need to cultivate this ability to listen, understand, communicate and negotiate win-win solutions to ensure that their organisation is having the best possible impact for its beneficiaries.
Apart from refining this leadership skill there are four policies that will help you lead successful social impact organisations.
Have a clear long-term focus for your organisation that all stakeholders are fully signed up to; from which you do not deviate, no matter how tempting the donor offer, easy the contract opportunity or how rich the pickings may appear. If you drift from your mission you will be less effective and your fundraising asks will be less convincing and ultimately your beneficiaries will suffer while your competitors prosper.
This next policy will be very contentious I know. Don’t have a 3 or 5 year programme strategy. Rather, have a framework of identified areas of intervention that allow the organisation to work towards its long-term focus or goal, with a set of principles and values that govern operations and organisational culture. Measure progress annually with a set of performance indicators that are set based on the previous year’s performance. How many strategic plans are drafted on a cyclical basis, taking up precious time and energy, only to end up on the shelf unused, or worse, tie the organisation into a direction of travel that doesn’t allow it to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities that will bring it closer to its long-term focus? When these plans are reviewed, the organisation is often found lacking, because the plan didn’t accommodate real life and importantly, what people actually do rather than what the plan wants them to do. Greater strategic flexibility will enable your organisation to respond better to the needs of your beneficiaries as they change over time.
But without a plan, how are you supposed to fundraise? How are you supposed to design effective campaigns and engage supporters and indeed respond to your beneficiaries? Well, this is about structuring your income. To be really effective an organisation needs a balance of types of income: unrestricted core funding and restricted project funding. We all know that unrestricted core funding is the most valuable and the hardest to get. It helps create agility and flexibility in an organisation to make changes, respond to opportunities and threats and keep the beneficiaries not the donors at the heart of its operation.
So, policies 3 and 4 are to develop two income generation strategies: one long-term, to generate as much unrestricted income as possible to develop that agility and flexibility and move your organisation towards its long-term focus; and one short-term, that can enable the organisation to accommodate appropriate restricted funding that helps to meet specific short-term beneficiary needs, such as distributing mosquito nets, or a male circumcision programme or a capital investment programme.
So there are the four policies: long-term focus, Strategic framework with principles and values and annual KPIs, a long-term unrestricted income generation plan, and a short-term restricted income generation plan. All supported by a legislative leadership style.
These are all things that I have learned from my time as a CEO of a fundraising organisation, and as a consultant working with multiple social impact organisations.
Recently (and before I received the brief for this event) I also wrote a blog on the five things that I had learned as a CEO. Reviewing the blog entry in light of tonight’s discussion, the lessons are still relevant and follow on from what I’ve already outlined:
- The solution often stares you in the face (listen and learn)
- Ask for help (you don’t lead in a vacuum, facilitate other people, appreciate them)
- Don’t be distracted by vanity projects (remember it isn’t about you)
- Partnerships are more valuable than going it alone (effective and beneficiary-friendly)
- Trust your gut (you were appointed for a reason)