​​​​​​​Chris Wright: What is the endgame for your charity?

06 Dec 2017 Voices

Charities must think about what success would look like for their charity, and try to work towards it, says Chris Wright of Catch22.

There was a vociferous response last week to David Ainsworth’s article on whether charities have a duty to scale up good ideas. It made one thing clear: when it comes to charity, size is still seen to matter.

We work in a sector where success is still too often measured by income generated, rather than impact delivered. By cash coming in through the door, rather than lives changed. This obsession with size – from the board, from the media, from peers - can make it hard as a chief executive to focus on our real jobs; delivering our vision and mission.

This year Catch22 celebrated its 229th birthday. As good a year as any to do some soul searching – why do we exist?

We’ve been very inspired by a paper published in 2015 by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, ‘What’s your endgame?’ In it, Alice Gugelev and Andrew Stern argue that: “Non-profit leaders should shift their focus from the scale of the organisation to the impact that their organisation can achieve.”

The article says: “The scale of an organisation, in other words, does not necessarily equal the scale of its impact. In fact, most nonprofits never reach the organisational scale that they would need to catalyse change on their own. It’s time for nonprofit leaders to ask a more fundamental question than “How do you scale up?” Instead, we urge them to consider a different question: “What’s your endgame?”

It defines endgame as “the specific role that a nonprofit intends to play in the overall solution to a social problem, once it has proven the effectiveness of its core model or intervention.” What struck me is that the end needs to be the beginning – the purpose of a non-profit needs to derive from its conclusion. Scale is essential for development, but not the reason for being.

The authors sets out six distinct ‘endgames’:

  1. Open source: A charity that invests in research and development to develop and refine a new idea or intervention. It then works to spread this idea or intervention by serving as a resource hub for others to draw from – a good example here is Alcoholics Anonymous.
  1. Replication: A charity that seeks to expand usage of its product or model without expanding its organization, by persuading others to replicate and deliver it.
  1. Government adoption: A charity that proves its concept and demonstrates that its intervention can be delivered at a significant scale, ultimately persuading government to take on its model. 
  1. Commercial adoption: A charity that alleviates either a market failure or a market inefficiency. By demonstrating the impact and the profitability of a product or service, and reducing associated risks, they create the conditions for commercial organisations to move in. A good example of this is microfinance in emerging economies.
  1. Mission achievement: A charity with a well-defined and plausibly achievable goal, e.g. campaigns focused on the eradication of diseases by a specific time.
  1. Sustained service: The decision to sustain a service indefinitely. This model makes sense only when a charity can satisfy an enduring social need that the commercial and public sectors cannot or will not satisfy.

How do charities determine what their endgame should be? By thinking about the characteristics of the social problem they’re trying to solve, and the operating model they use.

This thinking has had a huge impact on us. In answering this existential question we’ve made some changes to our model, reconfiguring Catch22 to focus on our endgame: government adoption. We are intent on delivering frontline services – then capturing the experience and learning from our service delivery so that we argue from a position of strength how public services can be better designed and delivered, achieving better outcomes for those who use them.

We deliver well so that we can have more impact in the longer term – not just at a micro level, changing lives on the front line, but hopefully at a system level, to influence the shape of future operating systems.

We will maintain a national presence and an operational scale at a level necessary for us to gain credibility, reputation and hopefully influence so that we can seek a platform from which we can make a case for change.

It’s been very useful in helping us understand that we are around the right size to deliver our endgame – large enough to have credibility and broad sector knowledge, large enough to be able to incubate small organisations with the same social mission as us, but small and agile enough to not lose our entrepreneurial spark.

So that’s us. A proud ‘number 3.’ Still thinking about size – but as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. It’s a challenge I extend beyond our organisation, to my fellow chief executives of charities big, small and in between; what’s your endgame?

Chris Wright is chief executive of Catch 22.


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