Some things I’ve learned about change 5: Charities as allies not leaders?

Earlier in this series, I argued that how we work is as important as what we do, but that who the ‘we’ is, is most important of all. Who owns our organisations? If we want to believe that charities are owned by the people or communities who use them, what are we doing to make that real? What power do those people have to change what we do? Just as importantly, what responsibility do they share with us? When I genuinely own or control something, I have both. In my paper for RSA and NCVO, Meeting as Equals, I set out how charities could and should take that co-ownership principle into their campaigning and influencing work. That would mean questioning the power and privilege of our own positions as paid employees of publicly-resourced organisations, and campaigning on the issues which people felt were most important to them and being prepared to be an ally rather than a leader of those campaigns. The charity sector has formidable resources and national infrastructure: to remain relevant to a generation which does not wait for permission to raise their voices, we need to demonstrate we are willing to use our resources not only in support of our own operational goals and immediate stakeholders, but as allies to a wider range of grassroots groups. This will mean building trust, demanding less control and taking more short-term risks, but it will build the campaigns, messages and stories which will capture the public’s imagination and build a new generation of leaders who have lived experience and a powerful voice.

People must lead their own civil rights movements. But not all civil rights movements have been equally successful. People with learning disabilities for instance, are often excluded from what should be their own civil rights movements (as Philipa Bragman of user-led organisation CHANGE once observed). So I believe a role remains for charities to build evidence, attract funding for less popular causes, work on complex issues with policy makers, and to connect people who might otherwise be isolated voices. We can only do that effectively if our own teams and networks are diverse enough to understand at a deep level the layers of oppression that some groups and communities face.

Shared Lives Plus has often been described as punching above its weight. I’ve found that, having built a platform, the more we share it, the further our messages go. In recent months I’ve been talking with my colleagues who lead on our work in the four home nations about how to structure our influencing and partnership building with our still very limited resources. I’ve concluded that we are at our most effective when we can influence at three different levels:

  • The vision level: this is longer term and agenda-setting.  
  • The investment level: winning resources and investment. This is medium term, or cyclical where it follows government budget setting cycles.
  • The practice level: this is short term and reactive, fixing immediate problems.

Our members often want us to focus on the practice level: for instance, trying to fix immediate and pressing regulatory challenges that are causing them problems right now. We had some success with this, when the Tenants Fees Bill, now an Act, threatened inadvertently to make Homeshare’s business model unlawful in England. With support from parliamentary allies and ultimately government Ministers and officials, we were able to win an amendment that averted this nightmare scenario.

Investment level influencing can be harder, more complex and more hit-and-miss, because it often involves trying to build the case for investing in our work in 150 different councils and as many NHS organisations.

The vision level ‘thought-leadership’ is the most nebulous. It can only be done as part of building broad alliances, unless you get lucky and a powerful politician latches onto your work or message (but be careful what you wish for!) It’s hardest to evidence the impact here. It can be the most interesting to do, because it involves making links between and drawing out themes from the work of many different charities. It’s very time-consuming.

If you focus only on short-term, practical influencing, you can be constantly fire-fighting, and feeling you are banging your head against a brick wall. It can be hard to stay interesting to the people you are trying to influence, who often cover a wide range of issues. You get pigeon-holed. If you only do long-term thought leadership, you may lack tangible evidence that you are making any difference. If you can sustain influencing activity at all three levels, you can use the broader networks and more senior relationships to help you when practice-level or resourcing issues come up, and you can use practice-level work to make tangible your vision.

I’m leaving this role at the point where the government has finally published its years-delayed social care White Paper, which cites Shared Lives as an example of scalable innovation, and which includes £30m of funding for an innovation programme. It’s one of those rare moments when years of work done by our members and us could result in significant change. Those moments are rare, fleeting and easy to miss, and this time, I’ll be cheering my colleagues on from the sidelines as they try to grab it, and I immerse myself in my new role.

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