In our live webinar, we spoke to Claire Rowney, Executive Director of Fundraising, Marketing and Innovation at Macmillan. We discussed their drive to revitalise not only their fundraising, but also how they approached their ways of working across the whole organisation at the 100 year old charity, and build an adaptive culture that’s future-ready.
When we think about innovation it’s easy to stay philosophical. Something we park on the list of things we’ll deal with tomorrow. But innovation isn’t and shouldn’t ever be a ‘nice to have’ – especially when it comes to safeguarding a heritage brand.
There can sometimes be an assumption that ‘heritage’ means staying the same, that somehow, it’s sacrilege to touch it. All this does is condemn the brand to a past that is no longer relevant for a thriving future. Innovation for a heritage brand is about finding ways to take the core of what makes it so well loved and push this into the future. It’s about identifying the red thread that makes a brand timeless and as relevant today as it was yesterday.
A simple way for any organisation to do this is to start by revisiting the principles that have made the organisation enduring and re-examine them through a future lens.
For Macmillan, care happens to be that guiding principle. Care is in their very DNA. But how people want to be cared for – and how they can be cared for is completely different to what it was 15 years ago because of changes to the care system, and leaps in technology. The opportunity for Macmillan to innovate how they care doesn’t risk their heritage, it just reinterprets their mission and makes it relevant for a new generation.
In our live webinar, Claire talked to us about the journey so far at Macmillan to kickstart a culture of innovation at this much loved, and respected, heritage brand.
What’s your background, and what was the context for working with &us?
I’ve spent most of my career with charities, in particular with campaign innovation, and it’s given me a real commercial mindset. When I joined Macmillan in 2019, I thought my job was going to be refreshing and revitalising the portfolio of fundraising activity, as it was fairly static and mature. I was able to begin that process for about a year before the pandemic hit. And that’s when things got interesting.
I’m someone who likes to make change, to be able to disrupt and try new things. Macmillan is an amazing heritage brand, that’s really well loved, and had done some really cutting edge things. But that established position can actually be quite paralysing for a brand and organisation.
Everyone within Macmillan is there because they want to make a difference and are united behind our purpose. But the heritage meant that no-one wanted to break anything. It creates a ‘farming’ mentality. These are the crops we’ll sow, we’ll water them in the same way, nurture things in the same way. This means the results are going to be the same all the time. There were small innovations going on, and there was some progress being made but there weren’t big steps forwards.
There’s a real drive to do more, and we weren’t going to get there with a farmer mentality.
When lockdown happened, like every organisation, we wondered how we’d be able to carry on. I passionately felt we should move quickly from talking laptops and Teams, and focus on our audience. What’s the impact for people living with cancer? What’s happening with diagnosis, with treatment, how are people being cared for and supported? What are their new needs, how are we going to deliver services and products that meet their needs and how are we going to keep the ball rolling in terms of income coming in?
And that context creates a drive for innovation. Creating new things and doing things differently during a period like that is more straightforward. Everyone gets that they need to do it, it’s helpful for changing the narrative, it does change your mindset. As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis. We should see it as an opportunity to innovate. But hanging on to that mindset is the harder thing.
And this is why we came to work with &us.
What were the challenges you needed to overcome, the things you were stuck on?
We’d centralised innovation. Service delivery and fundraising and everything now sits together in a centre of excellence. But that meant it devolved responsibility to that team and led to everyone else switching off that drive for innovation.
We had a lot of debate about how to unlock people’s creativity, and vulnerability in failure came out as a big one. People get championed when they succeed at Macmillan, but it means people will only do things when they know they’ll succeed.
And in the old days, Macmillan was described as the Wild West – which as a disruptor, to me sounds fantastic! Now everyone is very proud that there’s lots of systems and processes and governance and compliance, which are necessary. But it’s a pendulum. The Wild West wasn’t with us any more but we had swung too far to following the rules and we needed to break free of those shackles and liberate people to experiment.
And when you came to us, you gave us this framework of safety, and our exec team were able to feel safe in the idea of being creative. We weren’t even calling it innovation, just being creative, and testing the boundaries. The framework gave us confidence to loosen the reins.
Where and how have you started to see this impact the organisation?
The immediate evidence of this approach was when one of the team immediately built a squad around the ‘move like starlings’ idea, and it was someone in our finance team. They wanted to innovate how we do financial sign off. It’s one of those processes that absolutely kills people at work and it was one of those things that was a first breakthrough that helped people see that this was a really helpful methodology, they almost forgot that it was innovation, which is brilliant way to get stuff done. It’s just about making progress and a learner mindset.
Facebook challenge is another really good example of this. We successfully did a few so we asked ourselves what’s the ceiling for how many can we do before we start to cannibalise it, and what are the challenges that really work? And we’ve gone from 3 last year to more than 24 this year. And some will fail gloriously, and some will be a huge success. And it’s not always the ones we expect. But we’ve created Facebook challenge as a playground. There’s no way I could have got the team to do 24 Facebook challenges or product challenges a year ago but what this has enabled us to do is to inspire people to take risks, and know that it’s safe to do so.
And it’s having this viral affect across the organisation, taking on a life of it’s own. People are learning the approach, the principles around them, the methodology and taking it and running with it, using it to experiment and solve their own problems. And we’re giving them time and space to do it.
Yes, these things don’t change overnight, but we’ve got a group of people who are prepared to lean in because they know it will be valued, they know it’ll get results and whatever is happening they’re learning through it. So it’s also a great learning and development intervention. We’re becoming a stronger, more resilient, more disciplined organisation that’s more deliberate about creativity and innovation and is more thoughtful about the way in which we solve problems.
How do you see this evolving within Macmillan, what does it mean for the future?
I’ve been doing innovation for years, but I went to one of your fire starter sessions and we were creatively destroying one of our flagship products within our portfolio – The World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, which is one of our most protected products – and it was just really fun, and liberating, It’s bringing joy back into peoples work which makes people come back to it. I enjoyed that, It’s working, Let’s do it again.
We are seeing some roadblocks, but they’re surmountable. Philosophically everyone loves 5 Bold Moves. But when the rubber hits the road it can make people uncomfortable. We said that whatever happens in the squads, if it was significant in terms of budget or change, we’d need sign off but otherwise we were empowering the teams, empowerment over controlling everything.
We put rules in to remind people that, as uncomfortable as it is, this is how we agreed we were going to do it. In any organisation, especially a hierarchical organisation – and Macmillan is – it needs to have people at a senior level who are going to champion it. It’s easy to talk a good game about distributing decision making, but it’s hard to do.
Alongside this creative work, we’re having a conversation about what sort of leaders we want to build and servant leadership feels like the right direction of travel for us. We have people who are managers and have technical expertise, and do the making. And a great leadership team is there to enable the making.
Ultimately our leaders will be the ones that are able to let go and let others do the brilliant work.
It’s this approach and mindset that has enabled us to do things we wouldn’t have done.
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This is an expanded version of an article that appeared on Charity Times
You can watch the full webinar below