Beyond the Program Epitaph
28 September 2017 at 8:39 am
Across Australia there are many beacons of excellence, lighthouse programs showing the way in so many communities. Unfortunately, most will not last, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, as he offers seven ways to extend program life.
Here lies the we did good program
It lasted for a while
It did great work and made a difference
It lost funding and exists no more.
Australian charities never cease to amaze me. Time and again I hear descriptions of outstanding programs that are having a major impact on difficult community issues. Charities across Australia are not only making a difference in people’s lives, they are transforming communities.
What is less amazing is the limited lifespan of some of these brilliant programs. It often takes years for programs to reach peak effectiveness. Staying effective over time is harder than getting there.
Keeping the energy, leadership, commitment and funding required to maintain excellence is even harder.
Like most people who have worked for a few decades in the charities sector, I have been part of the program lifecycle on numerous occasions. I have come to expect the recurring sequence of reinvention, success, and demise.
One of the factors driving the program lifecycle is the tyranny of innovation, the myopic search for the new, the re-invented, re-designed, re-packaged solution that enables funders to feel like proud parents of a bright new shiny model program.
Another factor is the finite energy of staff who often operate at maximum capacity to establish and maintain excellence. Setting up new programs and projects, having the vision and making it work, requires real leadership coupled with a diverse range of skills and approaches. Often these leaders are drawn away from the now established programs, enticed to new more senior roles, leaving programs without the leadership that made them work in the first place.
The increasing role of marketing in maintaining interest and support has also contributed to limiting the program lifecycle by diminishing the perceived interest value of programs and services that are well established.The next big thing is easier to market – in the same way that new scientific breakthroughs are more interesting than the ongoing hard meticulous slog of eliminating unworkable options.
A lack of acknowledgement for excellence across the charities sector also plays a critical role.
There is no real Centre of Excellence, no virtual library of effective models, and a lack of encouragement for charities to build on what has worked in the past or is working in similar situations.
There are also all the current change pressures; globalisation, technological advances that are challenging how we work; disruption by new entrants looking to leverage either scale or adaptability to offer alternatives, a general increase in competition and sophistication from more players for a relatively stable pool of income sources.
Within this context, there are many things we need to do to stave off the program epitaph, here are seven ways to extend program life:
- Document outcomes, measures of success, the value being delivered to the community
If you cannot demonstrate your value you are vulnerable. Measure, document, compare, engage, so you have an in-depth understanding of the benefits your program delivers. You must be able to make very clear statements about your impact. Have the facts.
- Communicate success
If you cannot share your success in ways that others understand and find meaningful, you are vulnerable. Be the storytellers.
- Continue to evolve while maintaining excellence
Part of keeping leaders and investors that make things work engaged is offering the capacity to continually improve effectiveness through building on success. Allow scope for people to grow with the program and take on new challenges as part of what you do.
- Make provisions for the hard times
The best time to look at enhancing what you do is when you have the resources, but it is also important to take seriously the need to make provision for the inevitable storms. A program struggling to survive from month to month waiting for new funding is more difficult to sustain than a program that has put aside a buffer or reserve fund to get them through the lean periods.
- Learn from others
We can learn a lot from the past, and from what others are doing, especially in areas where there is good documentation about what does or does not work. We should not try so much to invent our own approach, but to adapt best practice, enhance excellence.
- Draw on expertise
One of the strengths of the charities sector is the “can do anything” approach of many staff and leaders.The reality is that there are many very clever people outside of your organisation who specialise in the kind of skills and capacities that your organisation needs. You do not have to do it all yourself. Use external expertise whenever you can.
- Be prepared to fail
Sometimes I see organisations make compromise upon compromise to avoid closing programs. If you believe in what you are doing, fight for it, but be prepared to fail. Playing it too safe will almost certainly perpetuate your irrelevancy.
Charities in Australia are world leading in so many areas, but we often become exclusively focused on doing the work and do not invest in our sustainability.
Across Australia there many beacons of excellence, lighthouse programs showing the way in so many communities. Unfortunately, most will not last. We will be lessened by the loss.
We can do much more than good work. We can ensure our work is documented, valued and sustained. We can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, use the expertise of others, and raise ourselves up above the “we did good” program epitaph.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.