CDE project 17 sec­tion 4.4: devolve respon­si­bil­i­ty — growth mind-set

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 12, 2017

Devolve responsibility – empower everyone to think for themselves and take action

‘If you’re ever in doubt, make the decision. Do the right thing.’

Dr David Feinberg, UCLA Health System

There are two key elements to creating an environment in which people feel empowered to use their initiative and take action. The easiest to overlook, and the most important, is your personal leadership style. The greater the level of trust you develop, the greater the chance that people will feel they can take action. 

Secondly, understand the importance of culture to this behaviour. There are a range of tactics you can use to increase the chances that this kind of culture will thrive.

Personal leadership style - communicate in a way that encourages others to lead themselves

Speaking about the culture at Solar Aid, Jamie McCloskey said that everyone feels empowered to take action, not least because they all know what they’re trying to do. When I asked if there was anything else about Richard’s style that contributed to this environment, he talked about the way Richard asks questions.

He explained ‘if you mention something to Richard, like there is a donor who has just given £50, he listens carefully, and then he nearly always asks you more, for example about “what else you could do to help the donor enjoy this gift even more?”. And this is not like some test or tactic, before telling you to do what he was thinking all along. 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.’

In The Living Leader, Penny Ferguson explains this powerful technique that seems so simple but in truth is rarely used. As Jamie discovered, it helps signal to those around you that you believe that everybody is capable of thinking clearly and taking responsibility. 

When people ask you what they should do, it is very tempting (and seems to be more efficient in the short-term) to give them an answer. Unless the building is on fire, Penny Ferguson advises that the wise thing to do is to respond by asking the other person what they think they should do. They may well say they don’t know, that’s why they’re asking you, but if you persist, saying you imagine they’ve got some instincts about part of the solution, most people end up sharing various ideas, including things they didn’t know they knew until this moment. 

What is hard about this technique is that not only does it usually take more time, but it is also usually more tempting to give the answer ourselves, not least because in that moment we feel valuable, and in the traditional ‘chess master model’, being smart is what leaders are supposed to do.

Of course, as a leader, you may well share your ideas if need be, but often you don’t need to do nearly as much of this as you may have thought. Lisa Cousins, Executive Director at Ethiopiaid, stressed the importance of giving people time and space to think and share their ideas.

This habit is not easy at first, because both you and the other person expect you to give them an answer, but the benefits of practising this habit are huge. For one thing, your colleague, the person who knows the donor best, is now more likely to share some of those insights before any decisions are made. It is surprisingly easy to assume we know all the relevant facts after only a brief introduction to a problem. 

Furthermore, if your colleague is involved in generating ideas, they are far more likely to take responsibility. Most important of all, the more you ask helpful questions about the challenges people bring you, the more you signal to them that you believe they are capable of thinking for themselves. 

When we interviewed Jamie McCloskey, it was several months after Richard Turner had left Solar Aid, yet Jamie was adamant the culture was as strong as it had always been. He explained that a key reason for this was Richard’s personal leadership style – it had helped everyone take responsibility for how things should be done, whether he was around or not.

Relentlessly reinforce and model action-taking 

Joe Jenkins said that ‘we spend a huge amount of time just encouraging people to do things. When I first got to Friends of the Earth, there was often a sense that somebody (senior) must have to sign this off, so in order for this to happen it must be someone else’s job first. So we were always pushing back, “why don’t you just do it?” and rewarding those who just made stuff happen.’

Another crucial tactic mentioned by most of the leaders we interviewed, including Laura Serratrice, Head of Fundraising at Bristol University, is the importance of leading by example. Modelling the desired behaviours is incredibly powerful, because people are far more likely to emulate what you do under those circumstances than if you merely encourage the same behaviour verbally.

Growth mind-set – model and promote the value of ongoing learning and development

If it is clear that the environment will continue to change in ways we cannot predict, one essential thing that leaders must do is help people to value continued learning. The Great Fundraising report found that ‘the development of an organisational learning culture was deemed critical to the development of exceptional fundraising.’

Richard Turner mentioned a key tactic that had helped promote this positive attitude to learning was setting up a book club at Solar Aid. Each time they met, one person would bring a book that was in some way relevant and share the key ideas they thought could apply to Solar Aid’s mission of ‘inspiring people to spread stories’.

Throughout his career, both at NSPCC and in the sector as a whole, Giles Pegram has promoted the need for learning and development as a cornerstone of successful relationship fundraising. At NSPCC, this included a core set of training courses that everyone joining the fundraising team took in their first year. During the courses, fundraisers explored the Donor + vision of creating an experience that was ‘different, better and more rewarding’ through six principles that brought this idea to life. 

One of the courses was called Flextalk, which helped people understand a system for understanding different people’s communication preferences, called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This not only helped fundraisers to be more skilful in understanding and meeting the needs of donors, but also helped improve internal communication, increasing the level of trust and flow of information between teams. This in turn helped the organisation respond to donors’ various interests, rather than only their initial reason for support.

One leader we spoke to was Paul Relf, Supporter Services Manager at Prince’s Trust. He knows that the challenges his team face will continually change, so at least twice a year he arranges for a mystery shopper to make calls and emails to his team. With the feedback, he then conducts sessions with the team in which they discuss what could be learned about dealing with these situations. 

One thing we found interesting about this example is that the mystery shopping is organised through an informal arrangement with his opposite numbers at nine other charities. This is the kind of pragmatic solution that makes your charity far more agile. Many charities have limited budgets and see mystery shopping as too expensive, so it does not happen. Paul has used his initiative and found a way to make it happen without a budget. The result is a solution which helps his team to continually find ways to adapt to the changing needs and interests of their supporters.

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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