Charities must embrace new ideas to better serve their communities, writes Nathan Sparling
There’s a very worthy aspiration in Scotland to use what we’ve learned during the pandemic to change our society for the better as we recover and rebuild our communities, charities and the economy.
But are we really trying to build a better society, or continuing to argue for the tinkering around the edges? The third sector should be the beacon of innovation, but we often see the same vocal inner circle arguing about the same issues.
What we really need is wholesale change, and that is going to be really challenging for some of us. We often don’t actually like change – because it doesn’t suit us or our vested interests. The fact that we are paid to do a job can sometimes mean we protect our interests before that of our beneficiaries.
There are many difficult decisions that are being made – charities are making staff redundant by the hundreds as funding is squeezed and the future looks bleak – but are we even making decisions in the right way?
In March 2019, I launched HIV Scotland’s new vision and 11-year strategic plan. Many people thought it was odd – why an 11-year strategic plan? But we did it to provide the charity an end goal. Charities don’t often talk about a positive reason for winding up and closing down – but we did. Funders often talk about wanting an exit plan, but in reality this usually means how a charity will move from one funding source to the next.
We want to achieve a Scotland where there are zero avoidable HIV-related deaths, zero avoidable new HIV-transmissions, zero HIV-related stigma and everyone living with HIV has a good or exceptional quality of life. When that’s achieved, there should be no need for a charity like HIV Scotland. So our 11-year plan isn’t just rhetoric – it’s a real life exit plan.
When was the last time you heard of a charity closing down because it met its mission? Perhaps it is my youth, but I can’t remember one. Sure, charities merge and shift in focus – but that often doesn’t add more than extra bureaucracy and less diversity to the sector.
We are literally asking to be put out of our jobs. That’s the kind of radical thinking that I think we need across the charity sector if we are truly to Build Back Better.
The commissions, advisory groups and networks continue to be filled with the same people, in the same silos – struggling to let new people in or dampening down ambition and innovation as if we’re just happy rabbits. A very big overlapping Venn diagram, as Fiona Duncan, CEO of Corra Foundation, rightly pointed out.
Anna Fowlie, SCVO’s chief executive, rightly noted that often the “usual suspects” are appointed to government boards, and I’ve been impressed by her approach to truly represent the diverse charity sector on the Social Renewal Advisory Board.
But the status quo can no longer be accepted. Where is the third sector representation on economic advisory boards? If charities or communities are represented at all, we are limited to a couple of seats - with many shut out. The reality is that the sector is never treated like an equal partner.
The challenge is that the people on these commissions and advisory groups are there because they can afford to be – they are in roles that are paid and they work their diary around the next appointment. But real people are left out in the cold, unsure what the newest report is going to achieve.
Dr Rak Nandwani, a respected HIV clinician who I consider to be a mentor, described this as the “diversity involvement paradox” – because the voices we most need are excluded because their expertise is not valued equally.
If we are truly going to Build Back Better and look back in 10 years’ time and be proud of what we have achieved, then we need to do things very differently. If charities are achieving what we are set up to achieve - then society should be improving. If society is fairer and more equal – do we need a thriving charity sector?
Do we want to see a sector that is achieving change, and therefore diminishing? Not because funders have abandoned it, but because we have achieved what we needed to.
To set ourselves apart from the public sector we need a distinctive performance measure. Closing our charities and meeting our end goals should be our performance measure. It needs to be very different, and people should feel uneasy. Change isn’t easy – but change can’t wait.
As has often been said during the pandemic: if life feels normal to you, you’re not doing it right. If our recovery is a return to “normal” – we have not done it right and we will have failed the many communities who need us, as leaders, the most.