Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Thoughts for 2010

A few weeks ago, on a sunny Saturday just before the beginning of Advent, I had lunch, in Rome, with my old friend Claudio Betti of the Community of Sant'Egidio. The Community does lots of fascinating things around the world and we had a lot of catching-up to do. I was struck by the way in which the Community, whether in its work with refugees, with people living with HIV/AIDs, the poor and the disenfranchised had an innate sense of its accountability to those with which it works. It has a real feel for the intersection of expertise and need and how staff, volunteers and beneficiaries collaborate in a great visionary enterprise.

Which leads me to reflect a little on the UK charity sector as we approach the turning of another year.  What are the issues that we will be facing in 2010 and beyond?

What business are you in?

I can't remember where I first heard this, but in the early '80s, Matchbox, a company that had made scale-model cars went into receivership.  The reason? Because they built their commercial model on the presumption that they were in the business of making die-cast model cars rather than understanding (as their rivals like Hot Wheels had) that they were really in the business of entertaining little boys.  In the USA Amtrak, who run intercity train services got into trouble because they thought they were in the business of running rail-roads and so they lost out to buses and airlines who understood their mission more flexibly as getting people from one place to another.

My point is, that for many in the charity sector, there is a need to be much more rigorously clear about what business they're in.  Too often we get a feeling that charities are drifting from their core mission and values, following opportunities rather than aligning themselves to the difference that they are mandated to make. We inhabit a privileged place in the complex territory of civil society. With that privilege come many benefits but also significant responsibilities.  I suggest that in 2010 we might be wise to attend to these a little more carefully. One way might be in being much more intentional about improving our impact reporting.  There are some great resources available to charities to help articulate the combination of 'stories and numbers' which would help us, as a sector, secure our privileged and independent position.

Listening to the Public

Charities have fantastic, often humbling, support from the public in so many ways, and yet, there is still a huge deficit of understanding.  When I talk to people about charities, I'm often struck more by what they don't know, or what they  think they know rather than what they do know. The urban myths about charities are out there, alive and kicking in the saloon bars of our public houses.  As a sector, we have done really rather little to meet people where they are and educate (in the best sense of the word) those on whom we rely for support. New media and social networking are providing some tools and impetus to improve our performance in this area.  There's still a long way to go.

Don't give up on Transparency and Accountability

A few months ago, the ImpACT Coalition  moved from its birthplace in the Institute of Fundraising to a new billet in Acevo.  I still believe that transparency and accountability should be on the agenda of every CEO in the sector and am confidant that Acevo is the best place from which to achieve this.  But ImpACT is a movement, a campaign within the sector, and campaigns need movement and energy.  It's time to see ImpACT emerge from a period of reflection, confident that its agenda is really important, equipped to lead and resource the sector and unafraid to say things that may be uncomfortable and challenging.

Sagging end and chapter's close

Next year I shall enter my sixth decade, perhaps anno domini is weighing a little more on me than normal! I certainly reflect a little more and melancholy comes a little easier.  But when I sit down for a meal with old friends like Claudio, whose vision to change things has been a forming influence in my past, and remains a reality of action and engagement in the present, then I feel pretty hopeful about the future.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

What is an 'administrative' contact with a donor?

The case of telephone fundraising agency Pell & Bales rumbles on.  Now, the Information Commissioner's Office has ruled that it would be concerned if charities made 'administrative' calls to donors who had asked not to be contacted.

While it's really useful to have a legislative steer on the issue, there are other questions worth addressing.  And, from my point of view, the biggest is whether you can ever have a contact with a donor, or former-donor, that is purely 'administrative'?  While I can conceive from a charity's perspective that some forms of contact might be about tidying up records and the pursuit of good practice, in the mind of the donor, there is no such distinction.  This is very similar to what philosopher's call a category error.

Donors don't, I believe, inhabit our categories.  They see their contact with a charity on a continuum in which our categories of information-delivery, fundraising etc elide into each other.

So this presents a case for a much more integrated approach to the way in which we interact with donors.  Any contact might bring a donation, and, from the donor's point of view, any contact may be seen as asking for one - even if you haven't.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Debating Fundraising: Talking about F2F and other issues

One of those occasional spats has broken out in the pages of Third Sector; this time it's about whether the chief executive of Pell & Bales suggested, in a presentation in the Netherlands, that charities might consider contacting donors who have asked not to be contacted, in case they've changed their minds. Now I won't comment on what he said, because I wasn't there and I haven't yet seen the presentation.  And, I certainly wouldn't wonder aloud whether we've a bit of a case here of journalists re-contextualising a remark so it has maximum impact.  The point is, that there are a whole lot of people getting VERY ANGRY!

That makes me ask the question: do we have the right mechanisms in place for decent, nuanced, debate about these sorts of issues?

Last week I was phoned by a journalist from the Financial Times to talk about Face-to-Face fundraising.  The piece was going to be, he said, a more balanced discussion of the issues.  Well, we'll see, it's not been published yet.  But the spirit of our conversation leaves with a little optimism.  Part of the problem is that we talk about these issues in an increasingly combative way.  I'm the first to admit that I've been guilty of this myself most recently in a piece that I wrote in The Observer.  But if you nailed my feet to the floor and asked me what I really felt about F2F, I'd have to say that I would put myself just on the negative side of agnostic.

I think that there are real issues about donor attrition from F2F, and consequently the cost of it, and I've yet to be convinced that we are taking seriously what the public's dislike of F2F is doing to the reputation of the whole sector.  Yet, at the heart of F2F, there seems to be an insight that the public like to be talked to, they like a conversation about what charities are doing, they like to be drawn into a dialogue.

I think that there's a real discussion to be had about this, ideally one that includes the public and goes beyond angry response posts on websites.  But I don't think we've the mechanisms and fora in place to do it.

Sometimes when I look at febrile website comments and angry Twitters, I'm reminded of a former life where, when I arrived in the early 1990s the Chief Executive didn't have a computer and so, if he wanted to lambast you for some heinous failure, he had to dictate the note to his PA, who would type it up but conveniently file it in her desk before making it reappear before him saying, 'you didn't really want to send this, do you?'  Then he was given a computer and a printer and he could type his own chastising notes which came to be known as 'Black-Edged Memos' and put them in the internal post.  But even then, the trusty PA could, on occasions, intercept the doom-laden missive.  And finally, there came email and the network.  Now there was no escaping his wrath.  At a single key-stroke a momentary flash of anger (often late at night) would head, inexorably to a staff-member's computer.

IT brings with great opportunities, but it can often act before we've had time to think.

All of which is to say that I see a need for much more thought and, yes, dialogue about things that are complicated but worth proper, and hopefully fruitful, discussion.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Charities in Dialogue: why reading Dostoevsky might help

Some Philosophical Observations
What's the nature of the relationship that charities need to have with their beneficiaries and supporters? While, in a sense, that depends on what sort of cause or activity it's involved in, there are, surely, some common features that guide how we relate to the web of stakeholders that surround us?  A word that I've noticed popping up in recent weeks from commentators on the sector is dialogue, particularly in discussions about the uses of and potential for social media.

Which is great, but perhaps we need to pause a moment and be clear what it is we mean when we talk about dialogue.  What is it and what do we expect it to achieve?  At its simplest it's just a conversation between two people.  In classical philosophy, from Plato onwards, and particularly through Medieval Scholasticism it was a way of testing propositions against objections with the presumption that the initial proposition would prevail.

When I was PhD student grappling with the obscurities of the back-blocks of literary theory I came across the ideas of the Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin.  In 1929, Bakhtin wrote Problems in Dostoevsky's Art, a masterful exploration of Dostoevsky's novels, in which he introduced a rich and generous understanding of what constitutes a human being, how the individual relates and is related to and understood by others, and how a multiplicity or 'polyphony' of voices and viewpoints is essential and has value and the capacity for being truthful. But truth is to be found in the engagement between disparate voices, or, what in later works, he would develop into dialogue, not in either the prevalence of a strong voice over weaker ones, or in some sort of synthesis of different opinions. Later writing developed the concept of dialogue and shifted it's use beyond just the exploration of novels to understanding that all use of language has a dialogic quality when, in engaging with the ideas of another, dynamic change occurs.

Bakhtin was not the only twentieth century thinker address how dialogue effects change but I still find his thinking about how mutual respect, and the desire to engage with and understand multiple perspectives becomes a mechanism for change.

World Faiths Development Dialogue - An Attempt at Paradigm-Shift

So, I would want to suggest a definition of dialogue as: a conversation that has the capacity to change all the participants in it. In the early years of this century I had involvement in a project which attempted to apply that sort of thinking to very practical issues. The World Faiths Development Dialogue tried to bridge the gap between development professionals, particularly in the Bretton Woods Institutions, and faith communities around the world, often living alongside some of the poorest people on the planet.  Was it possible to instigate a perspective-changing conversation between these very different groups of people?

Well there were certainly times when I wasn't sure.  I recall an encounter between the President of the World Bank and a very Senior Indian Hindu Swami in which they almost visibly found no point of contact and 'talked-past' each other.  An opportunity wasted?  Or maybe an opportunity where the necessary preparation hadn't been done and the interlocutors provided with the right tools and information?  More successful, at least to my mind, was a local encounter in the Ethiopian town of Jijiga where leaders from faith communities and development professionals discussed problems related to tensions between nomadic cattle grazers and settled pastoralists. This was much more focussed, practically orientated and ultimately fruitful exercise which demonstrated how the principles of dialogue worked in practice.

Dialogue and the Modern Charity

I'm pretty convinced that charities need to think about how dialogue can inform their relationships with the public. A presentation by Bryan Miller of CRUK and Jonathan Waddingham at JustGiving seems to me to be taking the particular task of fundraising using social media and addressing it with the sorts of presumptions of respect and listening that dialogue really needs. I am sure that because charities inhabit a privileged piece of social and legal territory, they need to be much more intentionally dialogic in their approach to their stakeholders.  To foment the sorts of change that charities exist to achieve, they, too, need to have the institutional generosity of spirit to be changed in their engagement with their stakeholders.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Celebrating Tim Robinson

I've always loved maps.  I can't think about travelling or a new place without a map, not always to find my way but more usually to try to get a picture in my head of context and the shape of things.  I recall my delight  on a visit to the Zanskar Valley in the Himalayas where the only maps available in Stanford's emporium were US Surveys with whole patches carrying warnings that, in these areas, the maps could be out by 5,000 feet in elevation and 5 miles awry in other dimensions.  It didn't seem to bother the locals that they were living somewhere which hadn't yet been properly mapped, but I was entranced by it.

But not all maps are about defining context.  The maps of Connemara, Aran and the Burren made by Tim Robinson are an entirely different proposition.

The fractured limestone landscapes of Western Ireland, and in particular, Connemara, the Aran Islands and the Burren are the subject of Robinson's cartographic and literary output.  A Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated mathematician, Robinson brings to his task linguistic diligence, an inquisitive spirit, and the capacity to translate and communicate the abstract into his maps and writings and make it  wonderful. Last year, my partner Ro and I explored the islands of Inis Me├ín and Inis Oirr, clambering over dry-stone walls, walking down ancient boreens accompanied by Tim Robinson's increasingly dog-eared map.  Monochrome, with the greyness of the landscape itself, and covered with hints and gifts, here a dolmen, there a blow-hole. And, on one memorable afternoon in the spring sun sat on the stones of an ancient fortress with the sea a distant but insistent drone and found the music of a flute that brought the first cuckoo to an eerie duet.

This is fractal cartography that describes the intersection of geology, human activity, the ascent of the human spirit in myth-making and story-telling and the ever-present sea.  The maps guide the traveller to look harder, listen longer and take time to absorb his/her surroundings.

Robinson's two volume work The Stones of Aran is a loving, irritating, learned, experienced account of the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor in which, so it seems, the history, geology and mythological landscape of every red kelp-clad field is described and laid out to view.  But this is very different from the writing of  urban flaneurs or psychogeographers, though no less personally experienced or etched into well-worn shoe-leather. I first came to these islands with my father who had seen Robert Flaherty's 1934 film, Man of Aran and, with that etched on his childhood memory had always wanted to visit.

Tim Robinson's recent work has been a triology of books of essays distilling a lifetime's learning and engagement with Connemara.  The latest Connemara:The Last Pool of Darkness, is a thing of great beauty and includes an essay on the time that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein spent in the village of Rosroe. Not only is it a wonderful description of place, time and biography; the mathematician Robinson manages  a masterful articulation of the development of Wittgenstein's thinking from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations.  There are few writers who could achieve this.  Robinson maps more landscapes than those of Connemara and Aran, he maps the intersections of landscape and imagination that belong to all of us.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Who is responsible for Transparency?

Last week, I spoke to a meeting organised by the Charity Finance Directors' Group. It took place what had been a Public School assembly hall in the City of London. It was a splendid late-19thC room with stained glass windows depicting great thinkers with a lofty hammer-beamed roof and tablets on the walls recording the academic successes of pupils in their Oxford or Cambridge exams.

Which, frankly, sat uneasily with the trapping of modern meetings, a vast screen, computer technology. And, indeed, with the subject matter for the meeting, developments in IT for charities in the last year. I spoke about how we might go beyond the rhetoric that crowds and obfuscates the debate about transparency and get to practical steps that people might take to improve their transparency and the way that they relate to their stakeholders (which is a long-winded way of saying accountability). So I was taken aback during the questions when it seemed that the audience, most of whom were IT professionals didn't 'get it' that they had the opportunity to be at the cutting edge, the pioneers, of what institutional transparency and accountability will look like in the future.

It's easy to get a little dispirited. But my thinking goes like this: the way in which we map the territory of relationships between charities, their beneficiaries, their donors and their stakeholder is changing. It's more demanding, but social media and other developments offer us opportunities to enter into a creative dialogue with our stakeholders. The will have a real effect on how we think about our reporting and our communicating. Look at the thinking of Steve Bridger, Rachel Beer, or Howard Lake, all of whom have influenced and stretched my thinking. All of them show how new media will change us as charities, and, I would add, it will change how we engage in our impact reporting, we will get better at articulating the difference that we make. In the end we will feel both comfortable and strengthened by being open and responsive. This is transparency as a way of life, not a tool of political spin. And IT professionals in the charity sector should be taking the lead

Thursday, 30 April 2009

On Leaving and Safe Arrivals

Last night I left a job that I'd enjoyed for two years, and a bunch of people of whom I'd become rather fond. Which is not unusual and is something that many of us have to do sometime or other.

There was the inevitable leaving party (mercifully shared with another colleague leaving and 7 suffering the ravages of anno domini having recently celebrated birthdays) and cakes were cut, presents opened and kind words liberally sprinkled about. I had planned what I was going to say, the gentle revelation of some of my colleagues eccentricities. But a high-octane gab-fest seemed inapproprate on this occasion so I cut things short.

I left weighed-down by generous and kindly gifts but more by thoughts, memories and half-formed regrets. But, I don't want to start these blogs in eeyorish gloom! It's a bright sunny morning down here in the country with little lambs (chops on the hoof!) gambolling around and rooks doing what rooks do (and doing it extraordinarily noisily).

So, having made a start, let me stop here begin again another day.