Remember the big idea

Photo by  Matthias Zomer  from  Pexels

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

No one ever started a charity with a small idea.

The Red Cross was started in 1863 by Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, who was appalled by the suffering of thousands of men left to die on the battlefield after the Battle of Solferino in 1859. His work led to the Geneva Convention, which remains at the heart of international humanitarian law 150 years later.

Save the Children was founded by Eglantyne Jebb in 1919 to save the lives of children suffering after the First World War. Eglantyne’s advocacy on children’s rights inspired the current UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Barnardo gave up his dreams of becoming a medical missionary to China to set up homes for destitute children, having seen the effects of poverty on the streets of London. His goal: “No destitute children ever refused admission.”

These big ideas have led to enduring charities that have changed the lives of millions. More recently, the biggest appeal in European history, Oxford University’s Oxford Thinking campaign, launched in 2008 with an initial target of £1.25bn. Commentators at the time thought this was hugely ambitious, coinciding as it did with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and HBOS. They went for it anyway and, having passed that target in 2012, immediately set a new one: £3bn.

At the Institute of Fundraising Convention a few years ago I was struck by the scale of ambition outlined by Cancer Research UK’s then CEO, Harpal Kumar, in his plenary session. Their 20-year strategy, launched in May 2014, is to see the number of people surviving cancer double, to 75 per cent. Survival rates increased from 25 per cent to 50 per cent in the last 40 years, so this means not just speeding up, but doubling, the pace of progress.

They may achieve this, they may not. In some ways it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that they’ll get further than if they set out to do a little bit more of the same. Harpal’s plenary speech was invigorating and exciting. If it felt like that to a room of fundraisers from other charities, imagine the effect on Cancer Research UK’s supporters.

Donors want to feel inspired and want to be given the chance to feel like we’re part of something world changing.

At many charities, though, the ambition that caused them to be founded originally has been lost somewhere along the way. Staff can be reluctant to set challenging aims because they seem too difficult. It can feel safer to bumble along doing more of the same, rather than assessing where they can make the most difference or stretching themselves with a big idea. Maybe even deciding that they’ve achieved what they set out to do and that they could take the brave step of planning for closure.

When NSPCC set out to plan what became the Full Stop Appeal, I bet there were staff who said “we shouldn’t do this, it’s not possible”. But they went for it and several years and many millions of pounds later, the landscape for child protection has been transformed. Of course, the evils of child abuse unfortunately still exist, but more is being reported, many more children are being helped and there are more prosecutions and convictions.

So, when I hear of charities that aren’t willing to take a risk and stretch themselves, I think it’s a bit disappointing.

I get sad for the fundraisers because this lack of ambition hampers their ability to fundraise. “Please give us £10 so we can do what we’re already doing, maybe a little bit more”, is not exactly a compelling case for support. I get sad for their donors, who might want to be part of contributing to something ambitious.

But most of all, I get sad for the beneficiaries.

This article first appeared on Civil Society in January 2015