Resisting the Urge to Pivot

By: David Knowles   |   Partner | Head of Philanthropy & Social Capital, Koda Capital   |

In 2019 I co-founded a charity called Plus One Professional Development, with Chris Wilson and Farial Ameen. Chris and Farial work alongside me at Koda Capital, where, as members of Koda’s Philanthropy & Social Capital team, we straddle the corporate and non-profit worlds.

Every traveller knows that the experience of living in two worlds reveals the difference between them.  Sometimes that difference can be quite stark and so it is when it comes to corporate and non-profit life. One example of this difference is how leaders are developed. While many corporates support leaders by offering excellent professional development opportunities, most charities can’t access, afford or justify spending money on high quality learning and development. Consequently, leaders in the charity sector don't get the development they need and this in turn limits the impact charities have in the community. 

Plus One was our solution to this issue. The idea was simple: use our corporate contacts to secure professional development opportunities for talented people working in the charity sector, at no cost to them. We felt that this could be done on a pro-bono basis, by facilitating a partnership between the corporate and charitable sectors. After conducting a pilot program, the idea was developed into a full-blown year-long program based on access to a curated series of face-to-face professional development opportunities, run in-house by corporate partners, complemented by one-on-one coaching and access to online courses. The face-to-face opportunities were seen as the essential component – where the magic would happen - due to the added benefit of putting leaders from both sectors together in the same room. We felt this was a great benefit and that corporate executives would learn at least as much from and about the non-profit executives as the non-profit executives would from them.

In 2019, the program began in earnest and the first Plus One cohort had almost completed their year of opportunity when COVID hit.  Corporate Australia was sent home and the charity sector faced a perfect storm. All in-house professional development ceased and many businesses cancelled their learning and development programs. This was really disappointing for everyone involved, but fortunately, the program was at an advanced enough stage that, as Directors of Plus One, Chris, Farial and I felt we could hold a graduation ceremony for our first cohort and we did so in mid-2020, over Zoom, of course.

We then faced the question of what to do. Our plan was always to repeat the program with another cohort, but now things had been turned upside down.

As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. 

Checking in with our corporate partners, it was clear they were in no position to make commitments, nor were they able to say when that might change. It was clear we could not offer the program as envisaged and we also felt it would be irresponsible to recruit a new cohort, with the corporate and charity sectors in such a state of flux.

At this point, the word ‘pivot’ became a strong candidate for Word of the Year. Necessity is the mother of invention and it seemed every charity, cafe and real estate agent in Australia was pivoting their business model in some way, in order to survive. I fielded numerous questions about whether Plus One would pivot to an online model, which was a logical thought, given face-to-face programs were simply not available.

As Directors, our response was to return to our charity’s mission and purpose.  We existed to bring people from different sectors together, to meet each other and to learn from each other.  We felt that was how we generated real impact and we felt we simply couldn’t achieve this impact by putting more Zoom meetings into people's diaries. An online program felt like a watered-down substitute and possibly something we’d do for the sake of continuity, rather than for the benefit of the people we existed to help.

Given we had not advertised for a second cohort, we felt comfortable sticking to our ‘theory of change’ and, on the basis that we wouldn’t be letting anyone down, we decided to press pause on Plus One.

In mid-August 2022, Plus One’s Directors met again to determine a way forward. To be honest, we spent much of the pandemic hoping things would ‘return to normal’, but it seems ‘normal’ is still a work in progress and so, in the face of continued uncertainty, we decided to recommit to the program and agreed to look at how we might adapt it to the new world we live in. 

We’ll be doing this with the benefit of what we learnt from our first cohort, who told us they found one-on-one coaching particularly helpful, and they’d like more time together as a group. We will be guided by our mission, and we are clear in the belief that our role is to create opportunity, not adhere slavishly to any particular operating model. 

The need to support and develop charity leaders remains a major issue in a sector expected to deliver so much for its funders and beneficiaries. The last two years also reinforce the value of meaningful connection and so creating opportunity for development and connection is our priority.

Change necessitates change and as Directors it is now on us to find a new way to give talented and committed charity leaders the professional development opportunities they deserve.

Sep. 02, 2022

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