Netball and digital – more similar than you might think

Mandy Johnson, Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition, explains why the game of netball has a lot in common with digital projects- and what charities can learn from it to give them a sporting chance.

Guest Writer | 20th Jun 18
Image shows people playing netball

Mandy Johnson is the Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition. She has previously worked for a variety of organisations including, Cancer Research UK, Deloitte and Marie Curie and has raised millions of pounds for the charities she has worked for. Despite being a former international tax specialist, Mandy was named the 7th most influential fundraiser in 2016 by the readers of ‘Fundraising’ Magazine. She has an MSc in Charity Management, with a specialism in Marketing & Fundraising.

I have been playing netball since I was nine years old. It’s a sport I absolutely love despite the fact that I’m too short and slow to be particular good at it. If you haven’t played netball before, I think there are some helpful connections to digital skills. Humour me – here are some important lessons from netball that we’ve put to practise in the Small Charities Coalition.


1 Be ready to pivot

No longer a regular netballer, I hadn’t heard the word “pivot” used often, until I started working for a tech start-up. The rules of netball dictate that a player cannot move their “landing foot” whilst holding the ball. On courts across the country, you will see netball players balancing on one leg and “pivoting” quickly so that they are facing the right direction to shoot or pass the ball.

In Silicon Valley, companies talk about “pivoting” when they make a quick change that alters their business. In the tech company I worked for, this resulted in entire departments ceasing to exist, almost overnight, as the business frequently changed direction.

Operating in this agile way meant that we were encouraged not to dwell on things that weren’t working and that a pivot signalled a move in a better direction.

Pivoting in a charity world

More recently, this term has come up again as the Small Charities Coalition joined CAST’s digital accelerator programme where we thought we were embarking on a project to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our helpline service. At the start of the project, we agreed a “problem statement” to ensure we were all focused on achieving the same outcome:

“How can we give Small Charities Coalition members the best advice and support for free, when, where and how they need it?”

Then we hired a millennial

A couple of weeks into the project, we hired Alex – a 28 year-old with a background in managing helplines. Within four weeks, Alex had introduced us new technology that allows us to manage more incoming enquiries from our website, email and social media in one place. What’s more, early testing suggests the efficiency savings are incredible.

The problem we originally identified with CAST was now already being answered, and meanwhile, the user research we were doing with our members as part of the accelerator had thrown up another important area to focus on. So we decided to pivot.

In week five of the twelve-week programme, they developed a new problem statement and are now focusing on how we can better support those come to us wanting to set up a new charity. For some, this turnaround could have been difficult to swallow, but CAST are used to pivoting.


2 Give yourself choice- and then decide quickly

Back in the world of netball, I was taught to land on both feet simultaneously so that I could choose which foot to pivot on. Sometimes I had no choice but to land on one foot, limiting my choices as to which way I turned next; making me less balanced as I made my next move.

Exactly the same lessons apply to the journey we are on with CAST. The initial research that they supported us with was broad; it can, and is, being repurposed for other things. Wherever possible, we wanted to keep our options open to going in whichever direction is right for our next move.


3 Move quickly or lose out

Once you’ve caught the netball, you have three seconds to shoot or throw it to another player. Taking any longer means that you automatically forfeit the ball to the opposing team. (Stay with me).  New platforms, apps and devices are popping up quicker than I can eat a bar of chocolate. If you take too long to launch a product then someone else is likely to have beaten you to it. Yet you don’t want to launch something that’s not going to work.

To help with this, CAST are helping us to build “minimum viable products” (MVPs). We use these MVPs to test with our target audience as early as possible to find out whether they met our customers’ needs before we invest too much in development. It allows us to learn quickly and fail fast (if necessary), ensuring we get something good into the marketplace as early as possible.


4 Understand how each person contributes

Finally, one that’s about team sport in general. Netball taught me so much about collaboration. Everyone has a unique and specific role, each with different boundaries and responsibilities. One weak player can be a team’s downfall.

Similarly, one great player alone is not enough to win. A strong netball squad is made up of people with a diverse group of skills, who understand the unique role of each of their teammates and collectively share responsibility for the outcome of the game. This is a good metaphor for everything we do at the Small Charities Coalition and one that I hope remains embedded in our culture.


Got anymore sporting lessons for digital charities? Leave your views in the comment section below.

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