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Are you like Mark Twain’s cat?
Are you like Mark Twain’s cat?

Mark Twain wrote: “If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won’t sit on a hot stove again. That cat won’t sit on a cold stove either. That cat just don’t like stoves..

We get burned by something that goes wrong…

…and then the lesson we learn is not just don’t try that again, but don’t try anything that even looks like that again. In fact, don’t try anything at all.

The charity sector is notoriously risk-adverse. Partly that is structural – trustees have legal responsibilities to ensure the charity acts responsibly. No trustee is going to get in trouble for the bold action not taken, for the opportunity left begging, for the money left on the table. And that seeps into the culture.

Shouldn’t we have a different attitude to risk?

Shouldn’t we say that failure is not when you do something and it doesn’t work, it’s when you do something and you don’t learn?

Thomas Edison famously wrote of his extremely tortuous path to finding a suitable element for the lightbulb. “I haven’t failed – I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work.”

You don’t have to bet the farm on an experiment.

You can dip your toe in the water, doing an experiment with just a small part of your audience. You can educate your trustees and risk-averse colleagues about risk: that not trying new things is in fact the riskier strategy.

The coronavirus has administered a huge shock – to our way of life, to our economy, and to our psyches. With fundraising going through the floor, this would seem a time to avoid any risk. But see it differently. This is the chance to reset, to try something different. If necessity is the mother of invention, crisis can be the mother of experimentation.


Michael Isaacs

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