Thursday 27 August 2015

Give more. Get healthy!

Had a great lunch yesterday with David Halpern, the CEO of the behavioural insight unit.  Better known as the nudge experts, they have been responsible for some fascinating  innovations in the way our public services work.  David is publishing a book on the theory of nudge next week.  Get it.  I shall. 

They have been responsible for some in depth work on how to nudge people to give.  And today they are publishing some new research on giving and health.  And it shows that spending money on other people is good for your heart!  

Giving generously lowers high blood pressure, an ailment that contributes to the deaths of an estimated 7.5 million people prematurely worldwide each year.

This remarkable effect that being unselfish with money has on health was discovered by a team of psychologists that ran two studies among older adults with high blood pressure.

The first involved 186 people living in the United States who were aged between 55 and 74 and suffered from high blood pressure.  The team analysed how much money they contributed to religious groups, political organisations and causes, friends and family and other organisations.

The researchers found the more money the participants spent on others, the lower their systolic and diastolic blood pressure was two years later.

The second study examined 73 participants with heart complaints aged over 65 from the Vancouver area of Canada.  They were randomly assigned to spend three lots of $40 dollars either on themselves or others for three consecutive weeks during a six-week study period.

When examined afterwards, participants who gave to others showed significant improvements in systolic and diastolic blood pressure compared to participants assigned to spend money on themselves. “Thus, prosocial spending was linked to lower blood pressure,” the team concluded in a paper about the trials.

The researchers believe these results represent the first-ever empirical evidence that engaging in “prosocial spending” can lead to lower blood pressure and healthier hearts.  They speculate that the improvement may take place in part because the generous act activates the release of the stress-reducing neurohomones.

This beneficial impact of generosity on well-being is good news because heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. High blood pressure, which puts people at a higher risk of a heart attack, currently affects 67 million people in the U.S. and, according to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people worldwide.

In their paper the team adds: “Together, these findings suggest that spending money on others shapes cardiovascular health, thereby providing one pathway by which prosocial behaviour improves physical health among older adults.” The team's paper goes on: “Across two studies, we provide the first empirical evidence that prosocial spending may lead to lower blood pressure among older adults.”

I wonder if this will be widely reported?  A good antidote to some of the hostile media publicity on fundraising.  It's great news for charities like the British Heart Foundation and their door to door fundraisers. So supporting them is not just good for the charity that is our leading heart research body but responding to their fundraising will help lower your blood pressure. What could be fairer than that! 

Thursday 20 August 2015

We need charisma?

The debate around leadership at the Kids Company has revolved around charismatic leadership and whether this is enough.  As I said on the Today programme when the story broke charisma is good and indeed many of our great charity leader are both charismatic and  passionate, but when it is not coupled with sound administration and governance it can be disastrous.

Charisma is one of those things that we are supposed to fall for and admire.  God-given grace and charm is magical, not to be sniffed at.  Or is it?

I was fascinated to see that the dear old BBC Radio 4 is about to embark on a series about it in many walks of life, ranging from St Paul to Sarah Bernhardt and into the 21st century.  And I thought I'd reproduce the blurb from the BBC website to provoke thought on this. Franc one Stock writes,

 "Charisma is an external force of nature: confidence, charm, power, "quick-thinkingness", combined with physical impressiveness.
The more I thought about it, the more dangerous the whole concept became.  Beware of charisma, I say.  It will lead you into trouble.  I wracked my brains and in fact only a few business candidates come to mind.
For example, though they might like to think that they are - accountants are not charismatic, though they now often rise to the top of large organisations. Neither are bankers, though they may wield great power for a time.
Charisma is about more than power. It's about influence."

Corporate charisma:

For example, Henry Ford is probably the most striking example of what must be corporate charisma.  Farm boy, suspicious of banks all his life, opportunist who created the production line (out of existing manufacturing techniques) because there were no skilled engineers to be hired in Detroit (they were all making railway wagons).
Because he had to take unskilled immigrants with little English he broke work down into small repeatable tasks on a moving line.  He reduced work to monotonous repetition, but he paid well for it.
Fordist mass-production and the production line became so influential that they rapidly became the way of doing things in manufacturing, not just of cars but of almost everything else. 
Big and hugely influential maybe, but was this charismatic? I think it was.  Henry Ford used to go "camping" with his friends Edison and Firestone in a convoy of tent trucks.  The press would follow and record their fireside chats.  Edison had an ear trumpet.  Trumped up charisma, but a pretty big impact on the way many of us still work. 
Business charisma often coincides with a wave of technology change, which the charismatic leader rides like a surfer.  Ford was a part of the great automotive disruption of the early 20th Century.
Charisma has a lot to do with how the American media portray their business leaders.  Getting rich quick is only half the story.  Business leaders need to be "awesome" as well, and probably short-tempered.

Jack Welch was charismatic during his long reign as a chairman championing shareholder value at General Electric.  But his reputation shrank almost as soon as he was out of office.
Like politicians (as Enoch Powell nearly said) the careers of most of those admired as "charismatics" end in failure.

Larger than life:

One charismatic business person of whom that was not true was the late Steve Jobs of Apple.  He was, I'll admit from my only encounter with him, utterly charismatic in how he behaved and what he achieved.

Jobs upended personal computing, the music industry, animated cartoons, and retailing.  But he was impatient and irritable, not nice.  Maybe that goes with the aura.

Francine Stock has zeroed in on one of the cornflake kings, W K Kellogg, who made a fortune out of his brother's cereal invention, which was launched out of his clinic in Battle Creek, Wyoming.

But where are the British charismatics? Fry, Rowntree, Cadbury - were those self-effacing Quakers charismatic? The question is naturally self-contradictory.

One genuine candidate is John Spedan Lewis who gave the John Lewis company away to the workforce and then sat at home writing awkward had-to-be-answered letters to the partnership's weekly newspaper, the Gazette, for the rest of his life.  A forceful man, a forceful idea.  No-one else I can think of in Britain gets near.

And apart from Steve Jobs, the only other candidates I have met were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, superbly charismatic together as only movie stars can be.  They bent the air when you looked at them, especially her.

But do we need charismatic leadership? The media do: charisma makes good stories, larger-than-life people behaving quite unlike the rest of us.

The force-field of charisma and its impact on others is usually accompanied by huge self belief. Several of the American billionaires are convinced they will find a way of living forever, for example.
Falls from grace.

Charisma breeds a dangerous deference in underlings. It leads to diaries so packed there is no time for reflection, and no need for it either.  Self-confidence is fine for movie stars, but in the business world it stops bosses from being challenged, and from realising that their big ideas are mostly fleeting, insubstantial and troublesome.

A bad plan produced by someone temporarily regarded as charismatic looks good at the time, but when the wind changes (or the economy stumbles) it often turns to ashes.  And British business is scarred with repeated stories of seemingly just-for-a-moment charismatic leaders who rapidly fell from grace, and took their companies with them.

One is tempted to say: "happy the land that has no heroes." 

I'm not sure I buy all this but I shall be listening out!

Charisma: Pinning Down the Butterfly is a two-week series presented by Francine Stock starting on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 24 August at 13.45. 

Monday 10 August 2015

Kids Company – a watershed moment?

It’s not David Cameron or indeed Gordon Brown’s fault that Kids Company has gone under. Indeed I applaud them for their instincts in wanting to support a charity they knew was working at the front line with vulnerable kids not reached or known by local authorities. But politicians, the charity sector and the public must learn the lessons from what has happened – and support charities that provide crucial services properly.

Kids Company is an important case in point. Their founder, Camilla Batmangeilidh was a wonderful character but she was also clear on one thing: the frontline was where the money had to go. She was very opposed to spending on overheads as she thought all the money must go out to her kids. This is a noble idea but if you take the time to view their publically available accounts their overhead costs are alarmingly low – way below what any sustainable organisation should expect. When you couple that with rapid, government-funded growth, which emerged in the wake of significant cuts to government provided services, problems are inevitable.

It appears that this was made worse by what is often called "founder syndrome." Any chief executive must surround themselves with a top quality team to deliver essential administrative functions. Batmangelidh’s approach appears to have relied heavily on her indomitable spirit, force of character and charisma. Without the sufficient collateral support of good governance and sound administration, these things, are, simply, not enough.

As council social care is cut to the bone, Kids Company was a major player in town. The social consequences of their demise are catastrophic for the individuals concerned and costly to the exchequer. Yet it would compound the catastrophe if criticism of the decisions by government on the funding of Kids Company caused government ministers to micromanage charities with which they work, or out of fear, overlook them altogether.

In order to square this circle, we need a more adult discourse on what it means to run a successful charity in the twenty first century. There is a broad lesson for the media, which must be less hypocritical about what it wants from charities. Take the recent furore on charity fundraising, which arose as a result of charities outsourcing this part of their activity to keep overheads down and funnel more money to the front line.  The negative stories were understandable but must be coupled with the understanding that to bring these functions in-house costs money – and that money will not go to the front line. And yet you can then be sure that the next slew of negative stories about charity overheads are on the horizon.

We must not return to a Victorian-style philanthropy where we rely on the occasional good will of some philanthropists but do not have the temerity to complain about the causes of poverty, to create sustainable organisations that make a difference for the long term and to fund and lead them effectively. The right lesson would be to acknowledge that running an organisation that helps people in the twenty first century requires good governance as well as good intentions – and the Government must support good governance and high quality leadership in the charity sector if it is to prevent future catastrophes.