by Katie Duckworth
So, politics has gone mad. Injustices are multiplying. Poverty is on the rise and the funds to fight it are tighter than ever. And to cap it all, the reputation of the charity sector has taken some big knocks recently with a string of scandals. All this, and Boris too…
So, how should the serious, responsible charity respond to the challenge?
How about having a bit more fun? Yes, fun. And no, I’m not being flippant.
There’s a growing body of evidence that fun not only makes for happier, healthier employees (obvs!) – and more productive ones too, less likely to get stressed into sickness or look for another job (slightly less obvious) – but, and this is crucial, fun helps charities fulfil their mission even more effectively.
Within reason, the more fun you’re having, the more you’re able to help those causes and people you exist for.
That’s why some of the most effective charities in their field have embraced fun as a core organisational value – alongside more familiar ones such as respect, equality and accountability.
Sean McCallion, head of fundraising at The Back Up Trust, shared with me that he remembers arguing passionately for fun as a value in a heated staff debate some years ago. He won; it’s still there, and, says Sean, has become core to everything Back Up does to support those with life-altering spinal cord injury.
Sustainability NGO, Forum for the Future, was an early pioneer in adopting fun; it’s since changed it to ‘Playful’, but the message is the same – “Fun is good” – as Dr Seuss famously said.
SO WHY DOES FUN WORK?
Fun at work has a whole host of benefits which come together in a beautiful virtuous circle. Here are some:
- Top of the list is that fun allows staff to have a laugh and let off steam. This is important for everyone, but even more so when the issues they may be working with are deeply upsetting or difficult. This doesn’t mean taking those issues lightly. Quite the opposite; by lifting staff spirits, it acts as a refresher, helping them tackle those challenges with renewed vigour and optimism. Staff with a smile are a lot more pleasant for clients and colleagues alike than ones with a frown.
- When people are having fun, they experience less stress and tend to be happier with a greater sense of well being. Better for them, better for the outfit as a whole.
- There’s strong evidence that happier people are more productive people, more engaged with work, more capable of simply getting stuff done. It’s obvious really. If work drains the life out of you, you’re not going to be doing a great job, are you?
- Fun builds trust and encourages positive relationships between colleagues, vital for the successful collaboration and problem solving the sector needs.
- Creativity and innovative thinking, so important for tackling the tough challenges we face right now, thrive in an atmosphere of play and fun, where people are allowed to experiment rather than be constrained by the idea that there are institutional right and wrong answers.
- Having fun helps people to learn more effectively (just think about young children learning through play – it’s true for grown-ups too!)
What’s not to like?
FUN FOR ALL?
‘Fun’ as a core value isn’t right for all charities, I know. It can be seen as frivolous and trite. And most charity workers don’t exactly have fun in their job title. But bringing fun into work doesn’t have to be a big cringe. As a coach and trainer, I support leaders experimenting with new approaches to bring out the best in their staff, and I’ve found that bringing an element of fun into work can often be a surprisingly effective means of doing so.
Here’s how some are going about it:
First up, creating a culture where fun is acceptable, has got to come from the top. Leaders need to be on board. Staff will find their own fun (which is actually the best way to let it develop) but only if there is trust that they won’t be judged or made to feel silly or bad. And a leader who can relax and enjoy some fun – when appropriate – from time to time can do wonders in putting staff at ease.
- That said, lowering the barriers to fun, such as tackling poor working conditions and staff conflict, is also key. As Louise Wright, CEO of Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis told me,
“Fun comes out when people are able to get on, when they’re not grappling with silly issues such as office politics, and there is a fair and equitable workplace which allows them to be empowered and facilitated. It’s my job to make sure that happens.”
- Planned fun (sports day, bake-offs, ‘bring your dog to work day’) is good. Organic fun that bubbles up from happy, supported staff is even better. Warm chats with colleagues, spontaneous lunches out and birthday celebrations all add up to a ‘fun-positive’ culture.
- Fun doesn’t want to feel overly scheduled or formal. You can’t force feed fun! And, please, don’t make anything obligatory. That really gives fun at work a bad name. I still remember Christmas lunches in my early working days at a big non-profit which were hosted by a team leader I couldn’t bear. I can tell you, that was extremely unfun. (Needless to say, I didn’t last long there!)
- Make sure fun is inclusive. Gender, cultural and age-related differences mean that what constitutes fun can vary hugely. Lena Staafgard, Chief Operating Officer at Better Cotton Initiative, told me she’d love to start a spoof newsletter, which worked so successfully in her previous workplace, but fears it will fall flat at the more international organisation where the jokes won’t necessarily translate.
- Make sure you bring fun into your learning. No boring blah, blah-ing in front of a PowerPoint. When I was invited to run management training at Aspire Charity recently, the brief was very much about making the learning fun so it would stick, but also to encourage participants to see that management itself could be fun. I didn’t go in there banging a drum shouting ‘let’s have fun!” (that would have put some people right off) but through the use of games, funny graphics, and a squeaky green frog, plus warm, honest conversation, we all had a very fun time.
- Having said all that, fun really doesn’t have to be a big deal. Fun at work isn’t necessarily complicated or expensive. Look for the tiny things – taking it in turns to join in with #FridayFunDay on Twitter. Breaking for communal tea-time. Small informal celebrations for everyone’s birthday. You name it – small can be very beautiful when it comes to fun.
So, despite the doom and gloom. Despite, or maybe, because of Boris, I shall carry on encouraging fun in the sector and celebrating all that’s playful and light-hearted. I may get some flak for it, but I truly believe that however tough our tasks, however difficult the issues we face, there is always time, and very good reason, to have fun.
Want to play?
At The Royal Star and Garter Homes, fun is highly valued inside its three Homes for veterans and their partners. Caley Eldred, Director of Supporter Engagement, loves that when she goes into one of the Homes she gets to express her fun side.
“Fun makes us who we are. If you aren’t prepared to go into one of our Homes and jump about in a tropical shirt or do the conga then working here is probably not for you. It’s not just in the Homes, where fun is part of the service, that staff have fun.” – Caley Eldred
Encouraged by leadership with a strong understanding of how to nurture a happy, engaged team, there’s lots going on at head office too, both organised and spontaneous, from cake sales to sports days.
“We try to make a positive, fun environment. We do a job that’s centred on difficult things and challenging issues, but we do what we can to always make that pleasant.” – Caley Eldred
Katie Duckworth is a coach, trainer, speaker and writer helping leaders with purpose and their teams to change the world and have fun at the same time. She is the founder of informal networking and support group #LeadersWhoBrunch.