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!