Why we should be focusing on productivity to positively impact fundraising and frontline services
Simon Baines from The Access Group takes a look at productivity and asks why the subject has not received the same amount of attention in the fundraising sector as it has elsewhere.
While productivity levels are much discussed across most commercial business sectors, in our sector it’s a topic that seems to have received little airtime to date. We hear a great deal about transparency, cost efficiencies, culture and leadership, innovation, digital optimisation, and these are all important issues in their own right, able to make a big difference to an organisation. Yet they’re also all encompassed by the wider issue of productivity.
With success measured quite differently to that in the commercial world and a focus more on ensuring funds are raised and vital services delivered for beneficiaries, it’s probably of little surprise that productivity isn’t the highest on charities’ agendas… but should it be?
With every charity under pressure to demonstrate cost-efficiency and achieve more with less, placing more emphasis on operational needs could be transformational. Streamlining and optimising every function so they work more efficiently can lift productivity and help us better serve the causes we champion, and in some cases quite dramatically so.
The Office of National Statistics tells us that productivity in the UK has managed only 2% growth in the past decade and is still showing little sign of improvement. It’s a statistic that is regularly cited and it prompted The Access Group to commission research into what barriers are preventing optimum productivity, the specific challenges for the charity sector, and what and where changes might impact most positively – published in our report last week.
We found that productivity is certainly an issue even if it’s not much discussed, with 87% of the charity decision makers surveyed finding it a challenge. And, indicating that it’s something that really should be on the agenda for every charity, nearly as many – 84% – said improving productivity would have a big impact on their organisation, and, not least, their fundraising returns.
Where they saw the greatest potential for improvement was in the areas of workplace culture, internal communications and staff training, as well as software systems and processes. Time being eaten up by non-core tasks, poorly integrated technology across an average of 5 to 10 disparate systems, siloed teams and poor access to data, are all common issues.
Solving the productivity problem
So where to start? Perhaps the first step is simply bringing productivity into our everyday dialogue, so it becomes a focus in every organisation. This requires not only buy-in at the top, but from all staff. At leadership level, there has to be an understanding of what’s needed to effect positive change and the power to implement it.
Having a process set up to constantly review every area of the organisation, from admin to fundraising, will help to identify where the pinch points lie and how they can be resolved. The effectiveness of this will only be improved by enabling staff at every level to contribute, keeping them informed about changes being made and why, and how these changes will help them in their core jobs so they are excited by and bought in to the project.
Embedding a culture of improvement also takes an ethos of investing in people: upskilling staff to ensure that they, and your organisation, can take full advantage of what fully integrated technology, and specifically digital, has to offer.
Technology is another key area where our research suggests big improvements can be effected. We found that currently many charity decision makers are struggling with – rather than fully benefitting from – the software solutions they are using. Just under two thirds are still relying on 5 or more systems that don’t integrate properly and there is a lack of process automation.
This is despite a single supporter view being increasingly important for insight-led fundraising and indeed regulatory compliance. Ensuring the systems and processes we use support productivity rather than create barriers will make a significant difference for many in both time and cost savings and fundraising income.
Essentially, improving productivity is about making positive change for better results and outputs. Of course, winning investment is never easy when a charity is accountable for every penny and investment is so often mistaken for cost. To help boards and trustees see the case for financing, being able to measure productivity will be critical. Just how to do this effectively when the main focus for charities is raising funds and service delivery for beneficiaries, rather than the financial outputs of profit and growth for commercial organisations, is the next step we need to explore.
Clearly there is much exciting work to be done to uncover the real opportunities better productivity offers for charities, their fundraising and beneficiaries. As a starting point though, objectively reviewing processes organisation-wide will enable every charity to identify where improvements, large and small, can start to be made for positive impact, both in fundraising and on frontline services.
Simon Baines is Managing Director of The Access Group’s not-for-profit software and service division. The report Exploring Productivity in the Not-for-Profit Sector is available as a free download.