CDE project 17 sec­tion 4.1: cul­ture — cre­ate an adapt­able, empow­ered environment

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 20, 2017
‘For a culture of team of teams, rather than a traditional command structure to succeed, requires a different kind of leader. …the heroic ‘hands-on’ leader whose personal competence and force of will dominated battlefields and boardrooms for generations has been over-whelmed by accelerating speed, swelling complexity, and interdependence. Even the most successful of today’s leaders appear uneasy in the saddle, all too aware that their ability to understand and control is a chimera. We have to begin leading differently.’

General Stanley McChrystal

‘He really wants to know what you think…so your brain is always searching for more and more ideas…and when you or someone in the team come up with different things he’s so genuinely enthusiastic…so pretty soon that’s the way you think even when he’s not there.’

Jamie McCloskey, Programme Partnerships Manager, Solar Aid

Eradicating the kerosene lamp from Africa 

Until 2009, Solar Aid’s strategy had been to help people in the developing world to solve problems through several different solar-powered products.

A major turning point came when their leaders decided to focus their efforts on solving one challenge in particular: the fact that the most common source of light in the evening for many people was the kerosene lamp. Not only is kerosene expensive, limiting how much the lamps can be used, it is also dangerous because it is highly flammable and, since it is colourless, it is sometimes mistaken for drinking water. The mission that Solar Aid settled its efforts on was now ‘to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa’. 

Though there were organisational challenges to changing their strategy, it also brought huge benefits. In particular, defining the enemy (the kerosene lamp) in their mission and keeping it tangible and focussed made it far easier to create a shared consciousness, both internally and externally.

This clarity about the mission made it ever more clear to Richard Turner, former Director of Fundraising at Solar Aid, that ‘the old ways of fundraising were not working…so then we had to search for a different way of doing things’. 

How will we achieve our mission?

The key question which Richard encouraged his colleagues to focus on was ‘how do we inspire people to spread our story?’ This was quite a shift from ‘how do we get people to give us money?’  He repeatedly stated this as the right direction of travel, initially within his team and subsequently with all his colleagues in the whole organisation.

This clarity about how they were most likely to achieve their vision increased the chances that everyone would make decisions that led efforts in the right direction. For example, when presented with the opportunity for Solar Aid to attend a music festival, they realised that the answer had to be ‘yes’, because even though they might only raise some coins through bucket collections, the event was ideal to help spread their compelling story. 

They took some solar lights (their safe, cheap solution to the kerosene lamp problem) to the festival and had lots of conversations. One of them was with a former Solar Aid volunteer who was interested to hear about the new mission. One month later she got in touch, saying she’d felt so inspired by that conversation that she’d come up with the idea of applying to a particular trust where she had a contact. Nine months later, Solar Aid received its largest grant ever.

Developing a shared consciousness

Every Monday, Richard compiled an update of activity form the previous week. The update included a status report regarding funding, but also information about supporter activity, for instance, a ‘tweet of the week’ and comments that had been left by supporters on the website. He initially shared these only with colleagues, but subsequently some trustees were keen to receive them too. 

All this communication required a lot of time and effort - up to two hours per supporter-focused report. Richard said he had started doing it when the organisation was going through a difficult period, but that it was clearly making such a difference to how the different teams worked together that he continued doing it every week.

On one Friday, the day before Richard went on holiday, one of his colleagues noticed an opportunity to seek funding from Google. Though Solar Aid were perfectly placed to meet the criteria of the funder (Google’s Global Impact Award), no fundraising colleague had been aware of the opportunity. The colleague who spotted it held a service delivery role at Solar Aid. 

Richard said that ‘all our effort to reinforce the vision and then create a shared consciousness about the sorts of things we were doing to achieve it, meant that everyone, from whatever team, was more likely to notice opportunities. Many of these would otherwise have been missed.’ 

Richard has now left Solar Aid, but Jamie McCloskey still works there, and tellingly, he talks in exactly the same terms as Richard. He says the strategy is to create a collective consciousness of people who spot opportunities to help solve the problem of the kerosene lamp. ‘Sometimes we do activities that don’t even ask for money; they are solely about inspiring people to share stories. The more this happens, the more people will be excited by the mission and work out how they could solve it. Very often those ideas and connections are far more valuable than if we had asked for money from that person.’

Richard remembers one of his colleagues, the Finance Director was initially sceptical. This was understandable, given that one tactic they used to inspire people to spread stories was to send a solar light to anyone who made a donation of £50 or more. This was a great idea in theory, but in practice, the Finance Director pointed out the many challenges, not least among them the cost of postage. In time, she told Richard she was finally getting it, as she received more and more evidence that these investments in inspiring supporters to feel great and share stories were clearly working. 

For example, the first legacy Solar Aid received, of around £15,000, came from someone who had been sent one of the solar lights. ‘Another time, they discovered that several different people from one postcode had set up a direct debit to Solar Aid in the same week: ‘Baffled, while thanking one of them, we asked one how they had heard about us. They explained that they had been to a dinner party at their neighbours’ house and seeing a solar light in her kitchen, had asked what it was. They had really enjoyed hearing their friend’s stories about the solar light, as a result they’d all been inspired to set up their own direct debits’.

Solar Aid has deliberately created a shared consciousness. Their supporters have such a great experience that they feel inspired to make use of their ‘social capital’. This strategy has inspired huge progress in the Solar Aid mission in just seven years. One measure of this progress is that the kerosene lamp has now been eradicated from Tanzania.

Click on the image below to view project 17 in full - PDF format.

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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