Towards becoming an ‘asset-based’ charity

In my recent report, Meeting as Equals, for the Royal Society of Arts and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, I gathered examples of charities which have reshaped themselves around the goal of being ‘asset-based’: looking for people’s strengths, capacity and potential, not just their needs or problems, and as a result being more willing to be led by people as equals, sharing responsibilities, resources and even ownership of organisations which had previously been controlled by a very different group of people to those who a charity set out to serve.

You can’t do ‘a bit’ of asset-based thinking: it’s all or nothing. The table below is adapted from the report and sets out some key behaviour and goal changes across every aspect of a charity’s work, from leadership, to fundraising, to frontline support.

Many charities talk about being asset-based, and lots claim they always have been. A key test of those claims will be to look at those parts of charity’s operations where the pressure is greatest to think and act in a traditional, top-down way, such as fundraising for instance, where charities can be most tempted to fall back on images of need and vulnerability, and least likely to co-design messages with people who draw on their support. These are also where the greatest opportunities may be: when we are allowed back out on high streets again, how much more powerful it would be to meet people who have benefitted from being part of a charity, rather than be accosted by street fundraisers who know little about the organisation and its cause.

I discussed some of these ideas with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor in a podcast here.

As ever, I’d be interested to hear your views.

The area of change Where we might be now Towards becoming an asset-based charity
Relationships We are there to serve our beneficiaries. We are leaders. We meet people as equals.

We are allies.

Recruitment We value a narrow range of expertise. Our team come from different communities, groups or backgrounds to our beneficiaries. People with lived experience volunteer, work and lead at every level. We recruit from the communities we work within. We embody the diversity and equality we call for.
Structure and scale We have a hierarchical structure with many management layers. We spend significant amounts on staff turnover and responding to failure. We create autonomous frontline roles, and devolve decision-making and power down to the most local level.
Campaigning We set the agenda, deploy our expertise and engage stakeholders in our campaigns. Our work often happens behind closed doors. We find and develop leaders within the groups and communities we serve. We enable people to identify and gather around the issues most important to them, sharing our knowledge and networks.
Communications We set the agenda and manage our stakeholders and our reputation. We police our brand and pursue reputation management when there’s a crisis. We share our platform: enabling people to share their stories on their own terms. We curate and co-create content. We don’t seek message and brand control. We prioritise transparency and trust when we make mistakes.
Fundraising We raise funds for our beneficiaries with hard-hitting campaigns which set out their problems. We compete for attention and seek every opportunity to make an ask. Fundraising messages are co-designed and co-delivered by people with lived experience. We build communities before asking for money. We give people more choice over how their money is used.
Strategy, decision making, ownership Our senior management and board has limited accountability to our beneficiaries in setting our strategy and priorities. Consultation groups lack power, a mandate and networks. We include an expert by experience on boards and committees, but worry it’s tokenistic. We invest in citizens’ capacity to lead us at every level, building our leaders’ skills, networks and career progression opportunities. We build co-ownership into local and national work informally, and through mutual ownership models.

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