The Challenges Of A New Approach

When TeachFirst launched its first public fundraising appeal under the banner of #everychildcan I had to bite my lip. I have a lot of time for the organisation, its approach and its graduates.

However reading their recent statement it appears I was not alone in my concerns.

TeachFirst is typical of many charities formed on the back of statutory and trust funding. It has grown rapidly and is the darling of a political clique. It does good stuff and has a confidence born of hearing how great it is wherever it goes. But it has little experience in having to ask for every penny or in how to win over the hearts and minds of Jo Public. And this showed.

This was always going to raise the fundraiser killer

The campaign asked for £3 to pay for a lesson for disadvantaged children alongside a PR stunt to get the great and good to ‘teach’ complete with photocalls and warm fuzzy quotes. So wrong on so many fronts it’s hard to know where to start.

To start with this was always going to raise the fundraiser killer “but that’s what I pay my taxes for”. And you know what – it is. I have run charities that dance along the line between what the state should provide and what charities subsidise. It’s a fine line that has existed for hundreds of years and will forever more (always assuming that the state will continue to provide something which I suppose is another debate). But teaching. Teaching in a maintained school classroom. Teaching our most disadvantaged kids. You’d be hard pushed even to find the most vocal advocate of small state to suggest that is a role for voluntary funded provision. It was a hard message to sell – especially when you provide statutory services and most of your audience don’t know that you are a charity.

And the implication that Teach First teachers are the only teachers who care about disadvantage – never a great message when graduates have to work alongside non Teach First colleagues. Teach First are in a delicate position at the best of times – encouraging ‘high flyers’ to teach for a couple of years in a ‘challenging’ school has, on more than one occasion, been compared to providing rich kids a gap year in the UK. In truth the position is more subtle – Teach First provides a win/win situation for all involved – but that underlying perception is there and the bad feeling is well summarised under the Twitter #teachfirstslogans. The campaign has left Teach First graduates in a difficult place.

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Slightly more fundamentally in terms of charity fundraising it appears that the funding was to be used – not to actually fund teachers – but to develop new ideas and projects. While that addresses in part the tax questions I am not sure how wise it was to launch the first fundraising campaign on the back of an ask that was not quite what the money was for. Most charity leaders have run creative pitches but they are an art form to keep legal, ethical and honest.

However, for me it was not the fundraising ask that made me wince the most. It was the stories of inspirational teaching from the worthies and celebs that had gone in to share their wisdom. Now I am all for hands experience – great to get supporters to see the work of the charity first hand. I am also a great believer in motivating and interesting adults, other than teachers, adding to the learning experience. But that is what they are – adults OTHER than teachers. They are not teaching. Not in the sense that their one hour slot left them with any responsibility for the learning outcomes of the children in their care.  Or that they were skilled or qualified to teach. They are no more teaching than I would be providing qualified legal advice if I completed the conveyancing on your new home during an hour visit to see what a solicitor does.  The approach generated lots of PR – tick one box for the campaign at least. But the message – anybody can teach – was totally at odds with the entire TeachFirst message that teaching is a highly skilled profession worthy of our best graduates. More than that – at a time when there is the debate about who can teach and what qualifications they need is a political hot potato it risked taking Teach First into a highly charged and potentially toxic arena. Nothing wrong with that – many charities exist right in that campaigning space – but do it intentionally and with a clarity of message and response.

Test, test and test again

As the government funding for charities continues to shrink (for some at least) more charities will enter the more traditional charity space of individual giving and ‘hearts and minds.’ I have had my own experience of leading a charity through this transition and I know it’s hard.  What’s my top advice to pass to Teach First and others facing same move? Test, test and test again – try your messages against your new target audiences – but make sure you have robustly examined their impact on your existing stakeholders. And accept that you are not universally loved – no charity ever is. Understand the position of those who don’t agree with you. Don’t let fear of your dissenters stop you speaking out but know that the dissent is coming and – if it is not possible or appropriate to avoid it – at least be ready for it.

Will Teach First recover from this? Yes of course – they have a good brand and a solid offer and lots of supporters. And there were some nice touches (as part of your sponsorship you can choose what lesson you liked best at school – not looking good for RE at the moment!). They have a very ambitious target –  £1million from individual giving in their first year of such fundraising. Others spend many years and much funding getting to that level so they have started down a hard road. But they are not alone and others have trodden the path before them. At NotDeadFish we want the best services to thrive. And Teach First is definitely in that box. But after years of being held up as a model of best practice for the voluntary sector maybe it is time for Teach First to reach out and learn first from their charity colleagues.