Speech: Thriving during a storm

“Friends, we’ve known each other for a number of years and when I look around the audience I see people I have run campaigns with, people who have challenged seemingly insurmountable problems and people I admire. I see people who would die in a ditch for anyone in trouble. In short, you are people I trust.

And that’s why this speech is hard – because outside of this auditorium, people are losing trust in our organisations and, by inference, losing trust in us.

Charities, particularly in the UK, have been in the news a lot recently. A quick search turned up these headlines:

  • ‘Just 2% of charity’s income went to those it supported’.
  • ‘Charity chiefs paid more than £100,000 a year’.
  • ‘Poppy seller Olive faced uncontrolled deluge of charity begging letters’.

While we may question the facts, the context and the language, I believe that these stories form part of a wider ‘charities are failing’ narrative.

As charities, we have too often responded late, not at all or defensively. This has then given significant airtime to some in the media and politics questioning charities’ right to speak out. This at a time when those we serve need us more than ever.

For these reasons, I believe we are now firmly inside an ongoing, evolving crisis.

Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ novels feature a character named Hari Seldon who predicts the collapse of his own civilisation. Before I go on, yes, this is about science-fiction, but this is also a wonderful read for those interested in politics and economics.

Seldon tells leaders that if they take action immediately (and consistently) the collapse will still occur but the world will emerge 1,000 years sooner from the cataclysm.

At first, Seldon is marginalised, before the leaders realise he is right – even coining the phrase ‘a Seldon crisis’ to describe what is happening.

I believe that charities in the UK now find themselves within a ‘Seldon crisis’ and not enough of us have fully grasped the scale of what is going on. This partial awareness has led to three partial responses:

Firstly, a classic freeriding situation, where some charities are waiting for other charities to speak out, hoping they themselves can keep their heads down.

Others have taken the view that innovation, process and maybe a shinier brand can guarantee their safety, by engineering their way out of the current crisis.

I believe, however, there is another way. Namely, that we commit ourselves to rebuilding our charities for the 22nd century, from the ground up, starting now.

I care deeply about creating change in people’s lives and have spent the last 11 years campaigning for UK charities.

I left (partly) because I believe that my next 20 years can be best spent helping charities reinvent themselves so they can keep changing the world into the next century.

I now offer, in a spirit of friendship, a series of ideas for consideration and discussion, as to how we can collectively survive the storm.

Firstly, I believe it is vital we recognise the prolonged and existential nature of the crisis our charities are facing. This is likely to be our new reality for the foreseeable future. Complaining or partial solutions will not change this. The key is action.

This crisis may affect each of our organisations slightly differently. At some stage, most of us will likely have a failed campaign launch, a rebrand that didn’t connect or a problem in one of our services.

And while the individual example is obviously important (think of it as a spark), it is just as vital to explore how our incident could become fuel for the wider ‘charities in crisis’ story.

By acknowledging that we are interconnected, we each get a clearer view as to how to take action on our own problems. By seeing that we are all linked, we also escape the freeriding problem. A crisis for one is a crisis for all.

As campaigners, my view is that increasingly we will be required to be influencing directors and trustees to give them the confidence and courage to speak out. For if we don’t, when the crisis hits us, others are far less likely to come to our aid.  Together, we must ensure that not speaking out does not become the new normal for charities.

But neither should we respond defensively (using violent language) when problems assail us, as if to say, “How dare people question charities?”. To quote Gandhi:

“I cannot teach you violence, as I do not believe in it myself. I can only teach you not to bow your heads before anyone even at the cost of your life.”

So if our response is not to be defensive, what could it be?

I would suggest we consider committing to long-term listening, understanding and reinvention – all to rebuild trust, however long this takes.

This is about us reconnecting with our supporters, beneficiaries and staff, around the difference we make, and it is about us addressing fundamental questions, like:

  • When I die, what do I want as my legacy?
  • What are our charities uniquely placed to do?
  • How do we need to change ourselves to make this a reality?

I believe we need to set out a compelling version of the present and the difference we make. We then need to paint an equally unforgettable vision of the future and how we are going to get there. By taking this approach, we will likely be asking people to join us on 50-year missions not five-week DM campaigns.

Other necessary changes may become apparent, including painful ones. This might be about us stopping services, merging or even closing charities. This might also be about us connecting, perhaps for the first time, with those who question our very right to exist.

In this vein, we need to become see through and make everything from our cleaners’ time sheets to our budgets and our campaign evaluations available and visible. Shining a light on to the minutiae will provide ammunition for some of our critics, but will also show the messy reality of delivering public benefit and how we change lives.

Yes, it will also show when we fail, but failure and ambiguity are ok. We just need to get more comfortable talking about them.

This work is about focusing on how to solve the biggest problems facing those we serve and then doing whatever it takes to make this happen.

Are charities fit for this century, let alone the next? My view, and I could easily be wrong here, is that currently too few are.

Can we reinvent ourselves to provide 1,000 times more outrageous impact for those we serve? Absolutely.

This work must begin now.”

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