Innovate or Die: A Charity Founder’s Perspective

‘I’m passionate about the people I help, but it has been a struggle since 2015, since the government funding cuts to charities…I feel lost…but I have to keep going. I applied to the Rainmaker Foundation because I had hope. Rainmaker Foundation was the first organisation who got it, who are as passionate as I am and were willing to hear more. I was given the incentive to keep going’

Angela founded DiversityInCare over 10 years ago. Disillusioned by the world of journalism and inspired by an internal sense of injustice having witnessed the phenomenal danger experienced by women in night shelters, she embarked on 30 years of front line management work in the charity sector. Initially, working as a trouble shooter, identifying and managing risks in homeless shelters, she found her passion for finding effective, holistic, person-centered ways to enable vulnerable men and women to find their sense of self.

This is a challenge that cannot be underestimated. Her clients over the years have included young girls and women fleeing incest and rape; women abused by paedophile rings in childhood; men and women with violent and/or self-harming behaviours, their childhoods often saturated with abuse; adults drawn into gang life from childhood and adults self-medicating with drugs and alcohol often to escape the memories of a neglected, abusive past.  For anyone listening, regardless of their knowledge of front line work, the details of these experiences are overwhelming.

Last week, I had a privilege to meet Angela – that phenomenally inspiring and experienced charity founder, with a potent mix of energy, passion and determination which I rarely encounter.  As I listened to Angela’s story, the stories of her clients, her reasons for applying to the Rainmaker Accelerator programme and her experience taking part in the Charity Innovation Day, I understood more fully the meaning of the Rainmaker phrase: ‘small charities, big potential’.

Angela founded the charity to address the wide ranging, complex needs of those whose lives are affected directly or indirectly by drug and alcohol related issues. Her approach and drive is focused on addressing individual needs holistically, fully understanding the root causes of addiction and having an individually relevant and integrated support plan in place which achieves positive results. Positive results for the clients, positive results for her charity and positive results for society.

Practically overnight, everything changed. There was less time to spend with the ones that really need support – and more time required on technical and financial issues. Government fundings were cut by 70%. Angela was struggling. Funding difficulties meant that she had had no choice but to shut down housing units in August 2016 and reduce the staff workforce to just her, leaving clients in a more vulnerable position and Angela holding an acute sense of responsibility.

Despite the funding difficulties, she remained on call for 2 years, often sleeping in the office to manage the long hours required to support high risk clients, she had not had a salary for three months and, by her own admission, she was ‘running on empty’ in every sense of the word. It was in this energy that she turned up at the Innovation Day.

The Charity Innovation Day was developed by Rainmaking Innovation, a global cooperative of entrepreneurs and innovation consultants, and the Rainmaker Foundation, a non-profit organisation working to accelerate the impact of small charities with great potential. The intense full-day session was designed to bring best in class tools, frameworks and disruptive thinking from the startup world to a group of carefully selected charities, to help them innovate their business models. Angela applied to participate in this session because she had given as much as she could give to keep the charity going. It just wasn’t sustainable. Over a decade of extensive work with clients whose needs are profound and complex, she had reached a point where passion and determination were no longer enough. She needed help and support, in order to help and support others. She needed an effective ecosystem to guide her on the path to sustainability.

DiversityInCare is one of many small-medium charities undergoing seemingly unsurmountable challenges in the face of the increasingly challenging political, economic and social climate. For charities like Angela’s, the choice is to innovate or face the painful process of shutting down the organisation. The Innovation Day needed to be a deeply respectful, solution-focused space for those whose determination and drive were effectively addressing our most complex societal difficulties.

“We were keen to bring a group of talented Rainmakers and Mentors to cast their entrepreneurial eyes on the participating charities, in order to help them sharpen their focus, get unstuck and begin to define new business models”, explains Cosmina Popa, CEO of Rainmaker Foundation.  The Rainmaking Innovation & Rainmaker Foundation teams, therefore created a deliberate and unique space with an atmosphere that would be conducive to enhancing curiosity and experimentation. The format made people feel valued and allowed them to collectively focus on what matters most: bringing through new possibilities.

“The charities all came with their own unique challenges, but they shared the same amazing attitude towards adopting new tools and methodologies. They dove into the exercises with a real appetite to learn; we see this in the startups and corporates we teach too, but I think the attendees had a unique advantage in their phenomenally deep and emotional motivation to change lives. Despite my role as facilitator for the day, I actually learned a massive amount from them and came away incredibly inspired” (Hattie Willis, Project Manager, Rainmaking Innovation)  ‘There was a personal feel…people were casual, friendly and genuinely interested’, explains Angela. Business models and concepts were explored and considered throughout the day but the innovation and inspiration, as is almost always the case, came from connection and meaningful person-person interaction.

During the nutritious lunch break, a Rainmaker approached Angela and began asking questions, to her surprise he consistently provided solutions and options, ‘he had an answer to everything…I loved his enthusiasm. It was amazing!’. Passionate about Angela and DiversityInCare, he went even further and discussed immediate philanthropic financial support with his family. His mother, moved and inspired by Angela’s story and her potential, donated essential funds the next day. The remarkable immediacy of this response allowed Angela, for the first time in many years of fighting to keep the charity going, to have a break from the relentless financial anxiety.

For Angela, the Innovation Day provided more than immediate, unexpected funding, it also led to a strong relationship with the Rainmaker she met at the lunch time break, who is now her Mentor. As I listened to their relationship develop in the post Innovation Day meet-up, I was struck by the speed at which new possibilities emerged and how Angela’s language and emotions changed. Her Mentor embarked on a focused journey of critical thinking, clarifying, challenging, solution-finding, expanding, exploring and identifying strengths, weakness and value. Together they built the foundations of a short, medium and long term plan of action.

Given that they are from two very different areas of expertise, the result appeared to be refreshing and containing. This was a coming together of two minds for a common purpose: the long-term sustainability of a small charity with awesome potential. At times, the conversation was predictably challenging (some solutions were vetoed!), but nevertheless, it was tight, focused teamwork working effectively under real pressure. No bravado, no ego, no unhelpful hidden agendas, just two people working out complex, multi-layered, immediate problems with a focus on achieving long term impact. Both parties must have felt valued and valuable and by the end of the meet up, Angela was clearly focusing on potential again.

‘It wasn’t just about the bills, he could see my potential. I could not see potential when I arrived at the Innovation Day, I needed a fresh outlook, positive people, I needed a team’. At the start of our meeting last week, Angela described a theme of unprecedented disconnection in the charity and social care sectors: a lack of resources; disjoined services and a focus on monetising people to meet targets and costs, all to the detriment of individualised, person-centred care, and effective, local partnerships.  It seems to me, that in many areas of life and the world, there are levels of disconnection that prevent progress and potential.

The Rainmaker Charity Innovation Day was created to be, in part, the antithesis of this, focusing on connecting, enabling, empowering and maximising positive impact. The remarkable immediacy of the philanthropy and the mentor relationship in this story isn’t the outcome of a standard pitch or a tokenistic fundraising event. It comes from an environment where people can be themselves, where there is genuine interest and belief in people and the community, and where talent and passion are genuinely valued and recognised.

Angela and her mentor have made a phenomenal start. Their ongoing journey will no doubt be challenging and rewarding in equal measure. But the future of DiversityInCare still hangs in the balance. And this is where the rest of the Rainmaker community has an opportunity to join in and support the campaign.

Jenna Gordon, Rainmaker and Angel Investor


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