Are you lighting fires or counting the biscuits?

A recent survey of charity CEOs reported in Insolvency News this week that 46% of charities have ‘slashed activities to stay afloat after the recent public sector spending cuts’. It’s no surprise that people are trimming costs and commitments to stay afloat. But how many are also being proactive in seeking new sources of income?

Much depends on the courage, conviction and commitment of trustees. Of course some management teams find the changing landscape terrifying, but they’re usually professional and experienced enough to see and reach for the opportunities. Trustees, however, are often far less well equipped to cope with change. Yet it is they who have the final say when it comes to taking a risk.

It’s as if you’ve been cast adrift on a desert island. Your management team and trustees find themselves suddenly alone. The supply ship has dumped you and sailed away over the horizon. They’ve left you some ship’s biscuits and you’ve found fresh water so you won’t starve. But what about the longer term; how will you manage? The debate on the beach is tense and emotional.

In my experience, many trustees would devote themselves to counting and rationing the biscuits. They’d organise a rota of staff to guard them and carve notches in a convenient palm tree to make sure nobody took more than their entitlement. They’d also post look-outs around the perimeter of the island, so that when a ship passed, they could attract attention and be saved.

The problem with this approach is that although you manage to eke out your reserves for several months, you are totally reliant on a new shop coming over the horizon and agreeing to take you on board. Right now there are very few new funding ships and fewer still have resources to enable them to take your organisation on board.

But for the risk averse, governance focused and often detail obsessed trustee board the alternative approach is way too daunting. Yet for those willing to light a fire to attract attention, then set out stalls on the beach to trade with whoever the smoke attracts there is a future.

Yes, you have to put a value and price on the services you offer. Yes, you have to promote them and provide them to a wider audience than before, especially to those able and willing to pay. But then you’re in control. With the money you earn you can buy new tools, create a new sleeker ship and set your own course into the future.

It’s true that pirates might also see your smoke and take you over, but the risk of that is actually very small. The fact is that if all you do is count the biscuits, you will eventually run out and starve. Becoming more commercial, taking some modest risks and worrying a little less about the rulebook is the only way most will stay afloat. Can I lend you a box of matches?


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