Friday, August 22, 2008

Does Mission Really Matter?

Does being a mission-driven organisation make any difference to delivery? Its a question being asked a lot right now in the context of third sector organisations.

On one side, the third sector, for once in its life, is united in its stance that, YES, mission matters - and that this entitles us be chosen over the private sector when going for Government contracts.

On the other you have the Parliamentary Select Committee led by Tony Wright MP saying that the case that third sector service delivery still needs to be made.

While Wright probably does need to get out a little more, I believe his point is one that needs to be addressed in a more honest way by third sector leaders.

For if the sector is asking for a level playing field, there surely has to be a more compelling case than one which states that mission-driven organizations are somehow `better' for end users?

Scratch away at the big claims made for the sector and the slightly messy truth is that, yes, while mission indeed DOES influence results, being mission-driven alone isn't nearly enough either to win confidence in our basic competence or guarantee those additional benefits that we use to sell ourselves.

Let’s be clear about this: Being mission-driven in and of itself guarantees nothing to end-users in terms of decent delivery or additional benefits to users. Public-sector organisations, remember, have comparable ideals to many third sector organizations.

Yet no-one seriously claims that this ethos on its own makes them any good at delivery. Indeed publicly run organisations are now synonymous with inefficiency, lack of innovation and being dominated by provider interests (unions etc).

So it goes in the third sector where you will find tens of thousands of dreadful organisations delivering third-rate services, wasting millions, failing to understand their clients, being run in the interests of staff and generally Getting It Wrong.

Some pretty big and famous names included.

Yes, please let it be said. The third sector is a real mixed bag. And in 15 years in it, I have seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Baddies and the Uglies come in two main types. One is the small organisation that runs on passion alone. They think that good intentions alone are enough on which to base a service.

The other is the donation-stuffed larger charities with PAs for everyone, marble offices and end-users who are too powerless to ask for better.

Both fail the customer badly. One by screwing up on delivery by not being professional enough. The other by having no economic reason to particularly care.

What I am driving at here is that, regardless of which sector you come from, being professional, well-managed and economically dependent on good delivery are pre-conditions of success.

Mission-related benefits only kick-in, and are only of any genuine value to anyone (including the user), when execution is right.

Only then can you successfully invoke the exceptional trust you can generate in your users; the great acts of voluntarism your mission inspires; your ability to attract resources from all sectors of society; your ability to co-produce services alongside users.

Now then, these are all things that private and public organisations struggle to do.
However, the private sector will always be near or better than us on professional management, efficiency and customer service.

Because these are their only potential sources of advantage and hence survival. For this reason the private sector will work very hard to show themselves to be better on delivery than we will ever be.

Therefore our job is not to carp to Ministers about level playing fields. Rather it is to at least match the private sector on delivery if we are to trump their offer with the ace-card represented by our mission and the benefits to users flowing out of it. If we fail to do this, our ace is useless.

Take the next Olympics as an example. GLL, a social business, are pitching to run the acquatic centre against considerable private competition. Their pitch, if they win it, will have successfully covered the delivery question before the social dividend is even discussed.

Because people buy on delivery. The Government, you me, everybody. The extras conferred by mission are only meaningful once this has been dealt with and we have successfully won the argument on delivery.

To do this we need to make tough decisions as a sector in the next five years. There are too many charities coasting by on public donations that don't run tight-ships. Too many charities which are divorced from any kind of pressure to innovate or improve. And too many that think MBA is a dirty word and that passion will get you there.

To deal with this, we need more mergers, more closures of crap organisations and greater media scutiny of the excesses and failures of some of our nation's beloved charities.

While I am not optimistic about this, I am hoping very much that the recession will do some of this work for us.

And right now, it is important now that we are honest with Government as a sector about our strengths and shortcomings. If we want a level playing field, we need to be able to play on it.

We can then insist that if are indeed as good as private providers we should, by right, win on the basis of added, mission-given value.

But we continue to plead, as we do now, plead for a bigger slice of the Government pie based on mission without actually being the best on delivery, our claims will, quite rightly, be enfeebled.

Does mission matter? Yes, but not as much as we like to think.

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