Is business development compatible with charity?

Dr Paul Jarvis, Director of Business Development at St Ann’s, writes about the difficulties for hospices to grow as businesses while maintaining their caring, charitable role within the community.

By Gemma Peers on August 29, 2018

Most of us have heard the song lyric ‘Love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage’. We also know that cheese is good with pickle, and that socks don’t normally go with sandals.

What about nurses and care? Charities and compassion? Those are words that many would say go together logically in their mind too. But, when it comes to hospices and business development, the response isn’t always immediately so positive. After all, they might not be words you’d expect to see in the same sentence.

The hospice world has always unofficially been developing its business anyway – we all adapt our services, we look at ways to bring in more income with new fundraising events, we collaborate with others, and we develop systems and processes to help evolve ways of working. It’s not a scary prospect. It’s something that’s logical, that we almost do without thinking, to ensure we can continue providing care well into the future.

I’m relatively new to the sector, having worked at St Ann’s since July, and my newly created role of Director of Business Development marks a change in the way we’re approaching business development in our organisation. Let’s be clear.  Prioritising the strategic development of our business isn’t about us losing our compassionate, caring personality, or losing sight of our organisational values that make us a much loved charity in the eyes of those who access our services and support us financially.  They are fundamental to everything we do.

But with the world around us changing, digital innovations happening all around us in our day to day lives, we can’t afford to sit back and let those transformations direct us. We need to be proactive and innovative as a sector to ensure we’re not left behind – because if we are, people may not wait for us to catch up.

Business development doesn’t need to be a scary concept. Gathering ideas from teams across the hospice, generating leads by networking or keeping abreast of what’s going on in your area, harnessing new technologies, and building your brand to help attract new audiences, are all important parts – and many you’ll be doing unofficially at times anyway. We certainly are at St Ann’s, but my role will be to work with teams to look at our strategic goals, and then identify priorities that help us get there, whether by diversifying our portfolio, adapting current practice, or being bold at trying new things.

Any business should have the confidence to try something new and be prepared to fail. Failing quickly and often means every time you complete the cycle, you learn something new that in itself is incredibly valuable.  Of course, not every experiment will be a failure, some will work exceptionally well to the benefit of the business, and some will be key functions of your growth strategy. Those that do fail shouldn’t be a burden, you’ll have failed early so you won’t be burning cash and wasting time. Organisations that don’t work in this way ultimately fail. They continue to invest (and waste) resource by doing the same thing over and over again, never realising there may be a completely different way to get there.

Developing new income streams or ways of working can sometimes be a scary business. As hospices, we sometimes worry about whether our current supporter base will embrace change, or whether long-serving members of staff or volunteers will react to change. That’s healthy, and we should always be mindful of how initiatives will impact our ‘business as usual’ activity and those people who make our hospice’s the amazing places they are. But, in my experience, giving people more choice about how they can engage with your organisation isn’t something that will alienate them – it simply gives them a chance to choose the mix of ways to get involved that most appeals to them. It’s like opening up a whole new shopping list of things they can choose from, rather than limiting them to one small purchase.

As our patient profiles change, and we do more to reach out to communities which wouldn’t previously have thought that hospice care was for them, we also need to continue reflecting on whether our business is also meeting their or their family’s needs more broadly – are we giving them that choice? We can’t put all our eggs in one small basket any more, and we need to reflect the broadening of reach that is happening across the sector in terms of our services, when thinking about ourselves as businesses too.

So, set aside some time over the next few weeks to kick off the socks and sandals, take a step back and think…if I was setting up a hospice today, what would it look like?  What factors from the outside world would help increase our reach? If I wasn’t confined by preconceived ideas or systems, what would I do?  What expertise do we have in our business that could be developed in a different way? You may not come up with a whole raft of ideas that you instantly want to, or can implement, but taking that time to think laterally, and scheduling time to do so in your diary will help you to start to look at your organisation differently.

Something I’ve already noticed is hospices have in huge amounts is passion.  Our staff, volunteers, and local people are passionate about our work. They want us to be successful.  Many businesses in other sectors would be envious of our reputations and that passion our communities have for us. That passion enables us to provide world-class care to our patients and their families – and however we develop and grow as businesses, it’s reassuring to know that that won’t change. They’ll remain at the heart of everything we do, and the more we reach out, evolve, and remain innovative, the better placed we’ll be to keep them there.