The curse of the 20:2 principle

Published by Lucy Gower on

IMG_5157Do you remember being 6 years old? Did you ever experience the 20:2 principle?

20:2 is, when as a child, you show your parents or your teacher your math homework. There were 20 questions. You got 18 right. Yet rather than getting a ‘well done’ for the 18 right answers, the focus from your parents and teachers was on the two answers you got wrong.

I often talk about creativity and how children are some of the most creative people I know, because they are not afraid to ask ‘why?’

However, as we grow older we learn in school that we get rewarded for getting things right and following instruction and not for inquisitive enquiry, experimenting or ideas, and certainly not for getting things wrong. Check this example, this answer absolutely answers the question – yet it was deemed wrong and got a big red cross.








Ken Robinson, author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts to government in the UK is critical of the education system in the UK for its role in inhibiting creative thinking. One of the results of this is that we tend to stick to what we know, to safe situations and habits that we repeat over and over again. Whilst this in some ways can be helpful, for example, we know a system works and we continue to use it in that way, the risk is that if we only do more of the same, or we don’t adapt quickly enough we, and our organisations will fail.

Listen to Ken Robinson how schools kill creativity on TED.

What does this mean for fundraisers?

Charities exist to drive change. They were set up because doing more of the same is not good enough. Take the example of ColaLife that uses the same principles and networks as Coca-Cola to get medication to children in remote places that need it most. ColaLife was set up to reduce child mortality, founder Simon Berry says,

“Carrying on as we are doing isn’t good enough because it is not going to produce results that we need quickly. What we are currently doing isn’t going to solve the problem for 100s of years so we need a step change.”

The impact of the 20:2 principle is that as organisations and individuals we feel safer sticking with what we know, we prefer not to take risks, and we like to be rewarded for getting things right. We conform. We prefer not to challenge or test new ideas that may fail, or be marked wrong.

I typically see this play out in two ways. When people arrive in new roles, from junior staff to Trustees they want to fit in and be rewarded for getting things right. They spend some time settling into their roles, ‘earning their stripes’ before being ‘too challenging’. By the time they have settled in, got to know the culture, learnt the systems and understood the internal politics they are part of the fabric of the organisation and their ability to challenge has been massively reduced.

Alternatively they arrive blazing a trail, and before too long despite being employed to shake things up and drive change their enthusiasm is slowly drained out of them as they get thwarted by bureaucratic processes and slowly wade through treacle as they battle the ‘that’s not how we do things here’ response to change. Eventually they leave with the hope that they could really thrive at being a maverick some place else.

If, as individuals we do not step outside our comfort zones to drive change and as organisations do not genuinely encourage entrepreneurial thinking and doing, how will we ever create the step change that is needed? We are not in the business of changing the world by tinkering around the edges of incrementalism – when that approach is simply not going to solve our problem.

Does this apply to you, or your organsiation? Can you honestly say that the way you are fundraising, the way you are delivering services is going to solve the problem that your organization exists to solve any day soon? Could there be a better way? If you think there could be a better way then it is time to step up to be a fundraising entrepreneur. Challenge more, take more risks, change things.

Start now. The next time you hit the wall of treacle, are told there is no budget or helpfully informed that’s ‘not how we do things here’, put the caution that the 20:2 principle has etched on your bravery back in its gift box. Step outside the box and think, what would an entrepreneur, for example, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Alan Sugar do in that situation? And then do it.

If you want to learn more about thinking like an entrepreneur, check out the ‘How to be a fundraising entrepreneur’ Masterclass that Jacob Rolin and I are running at IFC in October.

IFC-2015-logoThis post is part of the 2015 IFC Series. 101fundraising is proud to be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress for the 4th year!

More information about Lucy’s session at the IFC can be found here.

Lucy Gower

Lucy has been a fundraiser for over 10 years and is passionate about innovation and how it can transform organisational and individual performance. Lucy is an independent trainer and consultant specializing in innovation in fundraising. Lucy also blogs for fundraising website sofii.org and is a conference speaker both in the UK and overseas.


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