Shooting for the Moon and Failing Isn’t Such a Bad Thing


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James Collins and Jerry Porras introduced the Idea of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) in 1994 in their book, Built to Last (HarperCollins), but you can still recognize it in many commercial organizations around you. The BHAG is a business idea so difficult and important that pursuing it changes an organization, motivates its workers and potentially revolutionizes entire industries.

Commercial organizations are familiar with this approach, but adapting it for the non-profit sector may be riskier but even more effective.

Overnight, the NSPCC went from being a an easy-to-ignore group of do-gooders to a controversial challenger.

For example, a charity that promises to find a cure to cancer may attract attention with the BHAG, but it also may find that good will drains away as the years go by without the promised cure. Having set a goal, it can’t simply abandon its aspiration in a commercial sleight-of-hand. And yet the sort of audacious goals that come with this territory—Making Poverty History, for example—are rarely within the power of one non-profit to deliver. Long-term failure may drain the credibility of, and commitment from, the volunteers it relies on.

On the other hand, the rewards may be greater simply because these Great Unobtainables deliver inspiration. For an organization that stands or falls on the depth of commitment of all its stakeholders, attempting the impossible and failing may be an undervalued strategy because the milestones along the way would never otherwise be reached.

Today’s non-profits rely not just on commitment from volunteers and donations from the public. But also they need the media to identify them as effective at delivering change, and they need corporate partners to attach themselves to their values. There’s stiff competition for market share in both areas.

The experience of 120-year-old British charity The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) shows that shooting for the moon, and failing, can work. Ten years ago it found that its messages about child protection were being lost.

Achievable, but not better

“Up to that point, we had talked about ‘combating’ cruelty to children, ‘fighting’ cruelty, ‘dealing with’ cruelty. In 1999, for the first time we made a commitment to end cruelty,” says Philip Noyes, the director of public policy at the NSPCC. The reasoning of the group within the organization that advocated this was simple: By setting smaller (yet achievable) goals, the NSPCC was sending a subconscious message that a low level of child cruelty was normal. Now, instead, the message would be that “there is nothing inevitable about cruelty to children.”

Naysayers pointed out that the organization would be dismissed as a fanatical scaremonger. They were wrong. In March 1999, the NSPCC launched its “Full Stop” campaign, alongside a $500 million fundraising drive—about $25 for every household in the United Kingdom—a total finally hit in February 2007.

In British English, a “full stop” is the name for a period at the end of a sentence. Its Great Unobtainable: “Cruelty to children must stop. Full Stop,” was simple, emotive and eye-catching, and the green circular lapel pins that went with it were easily identifiable. But 10 years on, has it worked?

In the literal sense, no. No one ever thought it would. There is still cruelty to children. If you measure the NSPCC’s success in other ways, though, you would find that it has produced massive cultural change that few nonprofits have matched.

First, Full Stop has motivated volunteers, of whom there are now 17,000. “It’s a relatively straightforward way of marshalling everyone behind a single aim. Everybody knows what the purpose of the organization is; everybody knows that ultimately, that’s what their work is contributing to,” says Noyes.

Second, it galvanized supporters. More than 600,000 people signed the Full Stop pledge when it was launched. The average donation from individuals rose, but the organization was more surprised to find that many more corporate sponsors—notably Microsoft—wanted to be associated with the charity. Microsoft publicly stated that the NSPCC’s “Great Unobtainable” satisfied a “can do” attitude that its young, aspirational staff wanted to be associated with.

Third, it provided the sort of message that cuts through modern media. Tony Blair, then prime minister, understood. He became the first signatory of the “Full Stop” pledge.

Last, it created a culture of what Noyes calls “bravery.” Overnight, the NSPCC went from being a an easy-to-ignore group of do-gooders to a controversial challenger. Stomach-churning advertising (often showing abused children) made national news. Spokespeople became far more radical, speaking out when they were unhappy with public policy. For the first time, the NSPCC board turned away corporate donors who it felt did not match its need for commitment. The Great Unobtainable replaced a culture of management with one of evangelical campaigning.

Ten years on, the NSPCC has—of course—failed. There has not been a Full Stop. The NSPCC is often attacked for overstating the dangers to children or for unfairly skewering policymakers who cannot satisfy its zeal.

But it (and, more importantly, the children it has saved) gained far more. Child protection has never been higher on the government policy agenda. The corporate sponsors have stayed. Is Noyes apologetic for the shock tactics that upset as well as challenged? Yes—and no. “At least, if we get it wrong, we made the choice based on the right set of values,” he says.

Tim Phillips
Independent Consultant
Tim Phillips is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and consultant. He has written for The Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune and is co-author of Scoring Points: How Tesco Continues to Win Customer Loyalty and author of Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods, both published by Kogan Page.


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