It’s been two months since I moved on from being the Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness. It was a very special experience and it feels a good time to reflect on what I learnt about the role charitable activity plays in our society and the opportunities and challenges it faces in the future. Charities have an enormous amount to offer both psychologically and practically in modern society.
Charities provide a sense of ambition about how the world could and should be different. “Make poverty history” or “Together we can end cancer” are the kind of bold statements which reflect the lifeblood which motivates the best of what charities can achieve. In our postmodern era charities have become the holding place, especially for young people, for much of the sense of hope and idealism still left in our society. As cynicism overtakes other institutions such as religion and democratic politics it is crucial we hold onto a view of charities as positive agents of change. Charities must jealously guard their reputation and they will be best placed to do so when they stay close to their beneficiaries.
At their best charities reflect a different way of doing things. Driven, fleet of foot, closer to beneficiaries, holistic in vision, the best charitable endeavour can make things happen which statutory agencies struggle with. Not everything which charities do however is necessarily good, why should it be, but charities must get better and distinguishing between where they make a real difference and where they are less effective. My experiences was that by their nature charities found it easy to describe their impact of what they did at an individual level, but were less skilful at quantifying at and, at times, less open, than say a commercial operation, in deciding to drop something which was not working.
Charities have a crucial role in giving voice to the disadvantaged. In general the media is open and respectful of what they have to say although sometimes this can overly focused on the shocking and the negative. In recent years social media has given a new dimension to this and created a fresh and more direct opportunity for who those whom charities represent to speak directly about their experiences. In harnessing this voice, charities are again at their best when they are non-judgemental and non-hierarchical in how they use the voice of their beneficiaries. Effort, empathy and skill are required to ensure people who speak from personal experience on behalf of a charity are properly supported and not just seen as a “useful soundbite”.
There has been some controversy (sometimes I feel more in the sector itself than elsewhere) about the relationship of charities to the state. Although it has undoubtedly shrunk in the wake of public sector cuts, the last quarter of a century has seen a massive level of investment by the state in the charitable sector. Some would argue that this has compromised the independence of the sector and it shackled its activities to models of provision defined by the State. That is a risk which needs to be managed but by the same token that investment has enabled the sector to do far more than if it had had to rely exclusively on its own resources.
Austerity has undoubtedly created new challenges in managing that relationship. Charities are having to be more critical of decisions impacting on their beneficiaries. That it is not always easy although, in my experience, most, though not all, politicians handle this in a mature way and the constituency which thinks that charities should “be seen not heard” is relatively small.
In addition while there will always a gap between what charities provide and what the state offers to all citizens as an entitlement there is a real danger when the Government pretends that the existence of charitable support is a legitimate alternative to properly funded public provision. There was more than a hint of that message in the philosophy of Big Society which is one of the reasons why it became so unpopular in the sector. There will inevitably be more of this to come.
There are also challenges in managing the growing professionalism of the charity sector. Charities like other institutions need to be well run. In general, at all levels, those who work for charities will often accept less attractive terms and conditions than they would in other walks of life but charities need talent and will need to pay to attract some of the skills they require. They need to work on their systems of governance and ensure that they can attract Trustees with the right skills to oversee the work of major organisations. The business must not take over from the cause but badly run organisations do no good for any cause. The sector must be brave in correcting a naïve view of homespun small organisations.
I became a supporter for the diversity of the charity sector and the role of small and big organisations. However, charities are at their least attractive when they are being uncharitable about their peers and when stereotypes are rolled out about different types of organisation. Mergers sometimes have their place, as a number of parts of the sector have demonstrated, but the business logic of consolidation is to be avoided if this comes with a diminution of the essential spark and life blood of smaller organisations. What charities must always be ready to do is work together and one of things I was most proud of when I worked in the sector was a much greater focus on collaborative working in the interest of common goals. Much more was achieved as a result.
There is always a time to move on but I’ll miss the sector and am determined to take what it taught me into my next role. To finish though, I want to focus on the personal level. Above everything else charities have to offer they contain some wonderful individuals, people who often have lived through adversity themselves but whose whole response to that is to devote their time, money, energy, and will to making a difference for others. That is why St Paul was so right to say that of the three: faith, hope and charity, charity is the greatest.
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