Cause & Effect: Tim Willett
Tim Willett is Executive Director of Fundraising, Communication and Marketing for Action on Hearing Loss. After 15 years in the commercial sector working for companies like Toyota, BT and Motorola, he switched to the third sector. He was at RNLI for 8 years in a number of roles, culminating with the role of Head of Funding Strategy.
Many charities are overly reliant on a single form of funding. They’ve found something that works for them, and then they’ve always done it. And that’s fine to a point. But if that starts coming under pressure, that really does start making you question your sustainability as an organisation. Here at Action on Hearing Loss, we’re no different. We’re over-reliant on legacies (more on that below). But that equally applies to any organisation that’s overly reliant on trading income, or on traditional fundraised income. I think there are risks around those models today. My advice to most organisations would be to start considering how you diversify that portfolio, have strength in breadth rather than strength in specialty.
Charities have to recognise the world around them is changing. The trick will be being agile enough to react to it as it comes along and find new ways of generating income, delivering services, being relevant to audiences.
We don’t have the luxury of being able to sit around and do what we’ve always done. We know that doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. We have to do something differently. So it gives us the opportunity to rethink a little bit, review where we’ve been and make some different choices going forward.
People will always criticise your decisions with 20/20 hindsight. The only thing you can hope to do is take good decisions at the time based on the information you have available to you, and then make a call and see what happens. But you’ve got to be ready to hold your hands up and say “That’s not working” or it didn’t work and, let’s learn from that.
I’m a big proponent of opt-in. I was very involved in making the decision around moving RNLI to opt-in. If you’re talking to the people who are engaged and they want to hear from you, it makes your job easier. It will drive response rates up, reaction rates up, and ultimately a better return on investment, if we want to put it into those simplistic terms. And, I’m still a believer of that. With 20/20 hindsight, would I do opt in slightly differently at the RNLI? Maybe. There are some things that I would probably go back and say, maybe we could do that a bit different or we’ll tackle that in a slightly different way. But I would still go for it.
We can learn from the commercial world. We need to adopt their attitude of: ‘if this isn’t working, then let’s stop doing that and try something that will work. Let’s reinvent it. Let’s not be too static. Let’s work with our customers.’ A lot of the success I built in the commercial world was based on making sure that the value we added was determined by the customer, not by us.
And they are learning from us. We see it in a number of cases where the commercial sector is entering our traditional space of doing good. When you start seeing social enterprises spring up, and even more traditional corporates, people like Unilever, who are coming in and they’re trying to create a sustainable world. That crossover is happening quite dramatically at the moment.
Digital means you can move quicker. You can have a two-way dialogue much more effectively than you ever used to be able to. Engaging with people on the terms that they set, understanding how they want to interact with us as an organisation. Digital allows you to do that quite effectively, compared to old versions of interaction.
But, I would never want to see us lose face to face activity. There’s something really special about sitting down face to face and having a chat and talking things through and making sure that people feel valued. There is a balance to be struck here, as with most things, but digital is a critical part of that future piece that we’ll be looking to do.
There are risks around legacy income at the moment. The baby boom generation has started dying, and not only are they large in number, as a cohort they also tend to have more assets, due to rises in property values and benefiting from final salary pensions. The next two cohorts are relatively small and currently the predictions are that they will be significantly less wealthy, at point of death.
We’re probably coming towards the top of the bell curve of legacy income. I suspect we’re talking about a 10- to 20-year window here. That’s why I’m saying diversification now is important. It takes time to build alternatives. If we wait until it becomes a reality, it’s too late.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Hope is a strategic and creative agency helping not-for-profits raise their profile, promote their cause and raise more money (www.hope.agency).