WaterAid is certainly big, hairy and audacious!

Photograph of two information leaflets from WaterAid. One is almost A4 in size, the other is approximately the size of a DL envelope. Both are plain blue in colour with white writing that reads first in big lettering, "Fifty two million pounds a month," then in smaller lettering underneath, "We're going to keep asking until every household does it."£52 million a month—that’s not a small figure by any standard. And yet, as stated on a couple of leaflets that have dropped through our door during the last year or so, that’s the figure that WaterAid are aiming to raise.

This figure is even bigger when you consider that for the last financial year (2011/12), WaterAid raised £55.8 million in income—for the whole year! This target moves that figure to every single month.

You may remember that I’ve previously written about Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ concept of BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). Well, WaterAid, this goal is certainly Big, Hairy and Audacious. And I commend you for it.

Big, hairy, audacious—and achievable

Although big, hairy and audacious, it is also somewhat brilliant in its simplicity. Reading the leaflets that bear this slogan, we discover that WaterAid are not looking to raise this figure in large, one-off, lump sums but rather they are looking for every household in the country to give just £2 a month. £2 a month—that’s not a lot to ask. And, on it’s own, this goal wouldn’t be that ambitious. But getting every single household in the country to donate, now that’s a different ball game. And yet, for every additional household that does donate, WaterAid gets a little bit closer to their goal.

The charity’s audaciousness does not end at their fundraising either. Their overall vision is…

…of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation.

At present, “one in eight people do not have access to safe drinking water and two in five people do not have adequate sanitation”—there’s still a long way to go.

But WaterAid have a plan. In their 2009-2015 Global Strategy, they explain their ambition as follows:

…by 2015 a further 25 million people will have access to safe water, improved hygiene and sanitation as a direct result of our work; and…by influencing the policies and practices of governments and service providers we will have reached a further 100 million people.

Match this against figures from their annual reports and we discover that, although there is still some way to go to fulfil this ambition, WaterAid is in fact well on their way.

In 2009/2010, Wateraid reached 940,000 people with safe water and 1.24 million people with sanitation. In 2010/11, these figures grew to 1.5 million and 1.6 million people respectively. And in 2011/12, they reached 1.6 million people with safe water and 1.9 million people with sanitation. That’s a total of 8.78 million people over three years.

Assuming the same performance again over the next three years, WaterAid will reach 17.56 million people by 2015. Admittedly that’s somewhat shy of their goal of 25 million people but given growth in their figures of somewhere between 7% and 60% each year, it’s seems safe to assume that such growth will continue. Reaching 25 million people therefore no longer looks that unachievable.

What can we learn?

Such figures continue to support Collins and Porras’ original assertion that organisations who set themselves big, hairy, audacious goals go on to achieve them on a surprisingly consistent basis.

It can be daunting to set such ambitious goals, especially publicly. What if we don’t achieve them? What if we embarrass ourselves? What will everyone say? As organisations, we fear our failure and fear the repercussions of falling short of our self-imposed mark. And yet, we need to dare to fail in order to succeed.

Unlike commercial organisations who often intentionally withhold their vision due to its commercially sensitive nature, charities frequently declare their intentions publicly for an effective charity is “accountable to the public and others with an interest in the charity in a way that is transparent and understandable.” Typically, this means that charities publish both their vision and their strategy in the public domain.

For non-profit organisations, such public declarations are, in many ways, imperative. Charities cannot succeed without funding and funding cannot be obtained without demonstration of impact and ambition. Vision supports both. Necessarily, charities must be ambitious in both the work they do and the funds they raise. WaterAid epitomises this behaviour and demonstrates that it works.

In the same way as WaterAid’s impact has grown over the last three years, so also has their income. Total income has steadily increased from £45.6 million in 2009/10 to £55.8 million in 2011/12. That’s an increase of almost £10 million annually in the midst of an economic downturn. And it isn’t all due to increased grants—donations and gifts have also increased from £32 million to £35.9 million annually over the last three years.

WaterAid shows us that vision provides motivation, structure and the drive to achieve. They may not achieve their goal of getting every household in the country to donate £2 a month but how much more will they accomplish than if they never asked?

Similarly, it is hard today to conceive of a world in which absolutely everyone has access to safe water and sanitation but shouldn’t this be something toward which we all strive nonetheless?

As one of our clients once said, “Vision enables you to aim for the stars and clear the fence.” I wholeheartedly agree with this perspective. And, as I’ve said before, by aiming for the stars, I believe that whether you reach them or not, you will certainly clear a fence or three along the way—fences that you may not otherwise have cleared had you not created a vision in the first place.

Vision also cascades to create strategic alignment. As we see from WaterAid’s 2009-2015 Global Strategy, their vision has clearly informed their four aims for 2015. Rather than continually having to ask, “What are we trying to achieve?” the presence of a long-term vision has ensured the only question that remained was, “How are we going to achieve it?” And with their six year strategy, WaterAid have ensured that even this question has been answered. Every single person in the organisation is therefore able to go about their work knowing that, with each and every action, they are taking one step closer to the stars.

I’m confident that WaterAid’s overall vision is unlikely to change but I also hope that, having publicly declared the objective, they continue to pursue their fundraising ambitions too. £52 million a month is not a small figure and it is no small task to encourage every household to donate. But WaterAid boldly declared that, “We’re going to keep asking until every household does it,” and I hope that they do.

I worry the campaign may be a marketing slogan—yet another way to spin regular giving—but I hope it is not. WaterAid have already proven that they’re both ambitious and capable of achieving their goals. This is a culture to be proud of and one to nurture. With the drive and ongoing determination to actively pursue goals such as these, WaterAid will continue to make a difference every single day.

WaterAid and its partners use practical solutions to provide safe water, effective sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people. They also seek to influence policy at national and international levels. To find out more about the charity, visit www.wateraid.org

Article by

Debbie Stocker

Debbie is director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. She's a great facilitator, researcher and strategist. With an approach that is both creative and methodical, Debbie combines her expertise in psychology with a strong commercial focus. Her signature strengths include kindness and a love of learning. She also line manages the office dog. More about us

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