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Why charities are like rugby teams

Watching the international match between South Africa’s Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks this week, it struck me just how many similarities there are between charities and rugby teams. I’ll avoid the obvious comparison between boisterous team meetings and a scrum but here are a few observations that I think we could learn from.  What do you think? I’m stating the completely obvious but neither rugby nor being an effective charity is an individual sport.  The best single player is wasted if their team mates aren’t getting the ball to them.  The effectiveness of an award-wining fundraising director can easily be hampered by demotivated staff who don’t deliver to their potential.

Building on this idea, the Whole is generally greater than the sum of the parts for both types of organisation.  As a rugby fan, I know there are great players in New Zealand but the All Blacks as a brand is bigger than any of their individual players.  What it means to play for or support the All Blacks to each individual player is what motivates them to give more than the average effort – to really push themselves when everything hurts and their lungs are burning.  Charities like the RNLI and perhaps Help for Heroes in time, have brands (and associated values) which are more powerful than any individual within the organisation in driving action from their supporters.

That said, an inspirational and visionary leader can make a huge difference to the team’s performance.  England players during the Martin Johnson era were often quoted as wanting to give that bit extra effort for Johnson simply because he gave everything and therefore led by example.  Does your organisation have a leader like that?  Chances are that if you’re successful, you probably do.


Why your supporters are wealthier than you think... Course by Catherine Miles. Background photo of two sides of a terraced street of houses.

On a negative point, there’s still an unsavoury element of punching, with people taking ‘cheap-shots’ at their on-field opponents rather than competing and behaving respectfully.  I’ve been in plenty of organisations and meetings where I’ve seen the same personality traits on display but in a political or power-play context. Enough said. If the environment encourages initiative alongside a sense of team purpose, competition for places can lead to the strongest performers really shining and the team’s performance lifting accordingly.

Slick and effective teams have excellent internal communications.  There is opportunity for all members to contribute ideas and check their understanding.  That said, they also know when to challenge and when to take direction from recognised leaders and acknowledge that getting ‘caught up in committee’ does not always help deliver timely action.

There is a constant pressure on rugby teams and on charities to ensure that money is spent where it’s needed.  Contrary to public opinion, a huge amount of money is invested in rugby’s grass roots rather than to pay top level players and executives (many of whom work for free, just like Trustees).  And we know that so many charities spend every penny possible from the funds they raise on supporting their causes.  The public perhaps needs to be better informed on both counts.

My last and favourite similarity is simple resilience.  Pretty much every charity exists because of a problem that isn’t going away over night.  That means charity people have to stay motivated even when faced with the toughest of circumstances and the most seemingly insurmountable odds.   Just ask the Welsh club Llanelli that famously beat the All Blacks in 1972what that feels like!


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