Almost two weeks and more since Baroness Barran was transferred to the Ministry of Education during the government reshuffle. And we have yet to hear who will replace her.
It sounds like a pretty stark indictment of the current level of perceived importance charities have in the halls of Westminster and beyond.
When I talk to my peers, we discuss the issues that keep us awake at night: impact, inclusion, survival, confidence, resilience and well-being of ourselves and our people, how to maintain relevance. But we also recognize that as a sector we need to improve our game, especially when it comes to shaping and driving large and longer-term systemic changes.
System change almost always involves policy change and one thing is clear is that our relationship with government is not where it should be. Recent developments in reducing international aid highlight even the limited influence of our collective voice.
Too often, the government sees us as a good to have or only as a way to pay tribute to a community and volunteer spirit. At worst, we are seen to be awake, drowned in our own political correctness, not fully reliable for the very big challenges facing the nation. As a collective, we tend to think in groups or to put ideology above action. Our apex bodies and our sector spokespersons do not always have the necessary cohesion or transparency.
We will not fix this deficit overnight and no one can do it alone. We need to find a way to work effectively with governments, regardless of their stripe. It forces us to be sophisticated in our influence, propositional with solutions and not just oppositional with harsh criticism or calls for money. We must also play a vital role in witnessing to what we see and supporting the voices of people with lived experience to be heard. We may not agree with the government’s proposals in key areas, but, if we are serious, we must engage.
Charities don’t stop at filling the gaps
Charities large and small, local and global, have supported communities over the past eighteen months – in many cases, providing food and other essential basic items to those who would otherwise have had to. hard to cope. This work was a lifeline. But the role of the sector goes beyond filling the gaps. It is when we truly push the boundaries, that we forge much needed system change, that we can bring about huge fundamental changes in the experiences of those who need it.
The first charities paved the way for the modern welfare state serving the needs of society in deeply unpopular causes – unwanted orphans, prostitution, poverty. They filled in the gaps where no one else would. Although tremendous progress has been made, some of these issues are still relevant today.
To keep pushing the boundaries, we need to develop stronger alliances between ourselves and outside the industry. Every charity I have come across has a vision that exceeds its ability to achieve on its own. We need to be comfortable with a systems approach and a shared theory of change – who are the other actors that affect the outcomes for achieving our vision? What are we willing to sacrifice of our own brand to allow the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts? We must overcome the historical mistrust between small and large charities, assume goodwill, be humble and change the world.
Over the past two years, the British Red Cross has recognized the important challenges it cannot solve on its own and has sought to participate in building strong alliances, including the Asylum Reform Initiative and the Partnership. for emergency situations.
I am personally involved in these two coalitions. I’m not going to pretend that sometimes it hasn’t been hard work – different voices, brands, approaches and fan bases can all create periodic disagreements. But finding a common cause and choosing the intervention points that will have the greatest impact has also been extremely rewarding.
What is clear is that in order to push the boundaries now and in the future, we must be prepared to change the way we do things. We must forge new relationships with the people we serve, develop new alliances and a revitalized partnership with government. Today’s challenges transcend any organization’s ability to make more than a small difference on its own.
Every relationship is (at least) a two-way street. For its part, the government must work with charities to serve the country that elected it. Our reach, our expertise, our local and national knowledge could be so much better used. This challenge must be at the top of the bin when the new Minister of Charities is appointed.
Mike Adamson is Chief Executive Officer of the British Red Cross