Aiming for mediocrity

I went to school in Crawley, a new town in Southern England created after the Second World War to rehouse people from the London slums. It wasn’t a place which particularly encouraged ambition. I remember the careers tutor at my comprehensive, a man who didn’t give the impression of loving his job, laying out the options to my class of fifth formers. Boys were told to consider a career as clerks at the town’s major Government employer, the Paymaster General’s Office (I never learned who paymasters were or why they needed generals). Girls would become secretaries. Those students who expressed interest in rather more enterprising occupations were treated with considerable suspicion.

Leaving aside for now the question of whether I would have been better off as a paymaster general (was there a uniform?), this episode reminds me of the importance of setting the right level of expectations if you are to succeed at anything. I have been thinking of this in relation to fundraising.

Sad loner that I am, I’ve been reading a lot of charity annual reports recently and have been struck with many of the comments about fundraising results. The general tenor of these has been “despite the very challenging economy, trustees are encouraged that the Save the Left Handed Squinting Babies charity has been able to hold income steady”, before going on to hope that they might be able to achieve a similar stellar performance in the following year.

I’ve previously said what I think of charities who use the economy as an excuse for the fundraising failure but what worries me here is the lack of ambition in these organisations. If you think your cause is really important, how is it not a serious failure not to have increased the funding for it in a year? After inflation, static income means less money actually available for the cause. That simply shouldn’t be acceptable.

I’ve spoken to too many fundraisers who seem infected by this malaise. That’s depressing, frankly. The job of fundraisers is to change to world for the better by securing the resources to make good things happen. There’s never enough change being achieved or too much funding raised. So our targets ought to be extremely stretching. We might not achieve all of them but we definitely won’t achieve any of them if we don’t try.

I’ve always been fine with failure if I’m sure we’ve done everything we could. Stuff happens and you can’t control everything. But we shouldn’t pretend failure is a success.

A fundraiser who is uncomfortable with ambition or taking risks is in the wrong job. Go and see if the paymaster generals are still hiring.

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