Charities: whose voices?

Yesterday, the #CharityReformGroup – a group of charity CEOs committed to using their voice to drive reform – has launched its inaugural report: Its key message is that charities are underrepresented in the national conversation, compared to private sector leaders and others. It argues that charities need a louder, stronger voice, and that this means their chief executives should be more confident and more willing to put their heads above the parapet. It cites culture wars, the expressed scepticism towards charity campaigning of the current government, and self-imposed ‘chilling’ of debate by charities concerned or confused about what kind of (non-political) campaigning is both permitted by the Charity Commission and constitutes a good use of charitable resources. It has some bold messages and is well worth a read.

I agree with the report on charities’ voices being too quiet. None of us should be party political organisations, but we should all be social change organisations, and it’s hard to be a social change organisation if you don’t talk about the change that’s needed, as well as demonstrating it through your work. Campaigning and challenging the status quo has always been part of charities’ missions, and always should be.

However, the report’s argument rests on two assumptions, both of which I think are worth unpacking.

Assumption 1 is that charities which work in the social change sphere, are always part of the solution, and never part of the problem. That’s an assumption I’ve generally made myself throughout my career, but I now work at an organisation that, almost uniquely, found a way to enable people we worked with to tell us that, although we did lots of good, we also did some harm, and the harm in their view, outweighed the good. We were offering what Nesta called bad help, which was keeping people stuck in services. We were obsessed with their problems, but couldn’t or wouldn’t see the problems support systems were creating for them – dependency, dehumanisation, deskilling – of which we were a well-meaning part. So would the people we supported have felt it was important for us to speak on their behalf? We listened, ended our previous support and accommodation business model, and have spent years coproducing with people a support approach which puts them, and communities in charge. It is only now that we are starting to explore what sort of a voice we think that we, the people we work with, and the emerging network of like-minded organisations should have and be. We no longer think of ourselves as entitled to speak on anyone’s behalf, but we do try to earn our voice, through the more equal relationships we try to build with people, and what they teach us. Which links to the second assumption.

Assumption 2 is that a charity’s voice is its chief executive’s voice. As a charity chief exec, I certainly have – and want – a voice. But our goal is not, ultimately, for me to be an increasingly effective or louder or more amplified voice. Our goal is to walk alongside people who have experienced tough times, and have used, or been excluded from public services, as they develop their voices. This should be as much about sharing our platform as building it, and as much about being an ally as a leader. So I would be happy to see more charity chief execs on news and current affairs shows than we do at present, but I would be watching a group in which people like me were over-represented: white, middle class, middle aged men. So, how much more powerful if we practised what we preach, and distributed that leadership responsibility much, much more broadly. If we lived and demonstrated the social changes we were calling for. The steps towards doing that are to codesign our mission, our practices and our messages with the people we aim to help. As a charity sector, we will all need to embrace models of more distributed leadership, more autonomous roles, more peer-peer management, and building networks while dismantling centralised hierarchies.

The goals implicit in the report are creating social change, and hearing a broader range of perspectives: not just those with the biggest budgets and best connections into current power structures. If we continue to see success for our sector in terms that are defined by generations that ignored so many of the inequalities – of gender, race, disability, class – that the next generation have made very clear they refuse to ignore, we can’t achieve those goals. There will always be a private sector organisation with a slicker PR machine, or a think tank with better connections. Where charities could compete, and win, in public debates, is in our authenticity, if we can demonstrate it: our ability to find and amplify voices in which other sectors have no interest.

Because whether we are working in tiny grassroots community organisations, or huge multi-national charities, our mission is to shift power, not from one group of executives to another, but to redistribute power and opportunity more equally among those who are too often excluded from the power structures of every sphere of public life, including ours.


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