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Corporate Client Team

Charities Aid Foundation



There’s one story I heard as a child in primary school that has stuck with me since. There was always a strong moral element (often thinly veiled) to what we heard in assembly, but this one story struck me on account of its brilliant ambiguity. I remember it like this:

A man is walking through an orchard and notices an arrow in a tree that is dead in the centre of a target that has been painted onto it. As he continues through the orchard, he comes across tree after tree, all with arrows fired into the centre of the painted targets. He’s astonished and thinks, “Wow, I’d love to see this archer in action – I’ve never seen an aim like this before!” Sure enough, as he walks a bit further he sees the very same archer lining up to fire another arrow. The archer takes his aim and fires into a tree further ahead. The watching man is confused as the tree the archer has just shot at is unmarked. The archer walks up to the tree with a bucket of paint and a brush and paints the target around the arrow he has just fired – bull’s eye again.

As a kid I was surprisingly impressed by this tale. It was mostly the archer’s ingenuity that I found so entertaining because it sounded like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I found it hilarious how easy it is to fix our eyes on what we know we’ll be impressed by, even if the steps to getting there are actually underhanded. Well, as formulated by a 7 year old mind…

I’m still impressed by it today, but more by the effrontery of the archer. He wants his targets to be seen but he’s not interested in learning how to shoot properly. We’ve all been rubbish at something in our lives but we’re encouraged to do things properly. If we’re not great in the beginning the results will eventually come. Not the archer. Here are two lessons I’ve learnt from that story.


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Don’t just fire arrows into trees

I’m still regularly taken aback by how many companies approach me and ask for help to retrofit. Often companies have been delivering sustainability or community projects that are working well, and they want to develop these in a more strategic way. The conversation can look like this:

Company: “Which SDG can we align to that we already cover”, or “which charities can we partner with”, or “how do we engage internal and external stakeholders in this?”

Me: “What do you want to achieve through this?”

Company: “We want to have an impact.”

Me: “But what are the objectives of your strategy?”

Company: “We don’t really know” or “we’re still thinking through it. Can we not just pick the SDG/charity/campaign first and then we’ll see what makes sense for the strategy after that?”

This is the point in the conversation when you decide whether you want to aim for a strategic target, or paint the target around your arrow. When companies paint their target before firing they force themselves to think about the reasons behind what they’re doing.

One of our clients, Warburtons, went to great pains with us to pick the right multi-year charity partner that both aligned to their business and to their community investment strategy. Two years ago they launched a partnership with junior parkrun, and have continued to paint themselves more ambitious targets during the course of the partnership to challenge themselves to make a continued positive impact.

If the company isn’t in a position to do this and decides to paint around existing arrows, we can’t really help. Their future work will likely be scatter-gun and their social and business impact is diluted.

Stop pretending you hit the bull’s eye

There are two principles at play here: openness and integrity.

Firstly, everyone knows that some things work and some things don’t. We also know that there are countless examples of a conventionally-perceived failure leading to something exceptional. But then, in our sector, look at the example of Sainsbury’s attempt to address a sustainability need expressed by their customers. Following their one-year food waste reduction pilot in Swadlincote, appraisals weren’t very flattering.

But why do we throw around terms like “failing” and “falling short of the mark”? At least the company is pushing to achieve positive social and environmental impact. And they did reduce avoidable food waste which is far better than maintaining status quo. During their nationwide roll-out I hope that they’re rewarded for their openness by their customers and the industry.

Secondly, being disingenuous clearly undermines trust. In fact, when companies admit to things that don’t work and show how they learn from them it has tangible benefits for the company. Accepting failure and committing to learn from it is much better than trying to save face and hiding the truth. This is a truism that we all know.

Be the person your seven year old self was encouraged to be

But do we? Why, when we work, do we disregard the lessons we were taught as children about being good and responsible people? Why does a company retro-fit its SDG achievements; why do consultants over-claim the impact that they’ve had with their clients?

Maybe this is being naïve and not appreciating how the world really works. But in our line of work this becomes all the more important – we affect real people, real communities and real natural resources. So before you fire your next arrow have a little think about why you’re firing it first.

“Draw not your bow till your arrow is fixed.”


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