Love in red letters

A love letter to the charity sector

By Lynne Berry 12 February 2016

With Valentine’s Day upon us, Lynne Berry OBE looks back on the time she’s spent working in the sector. 


Dear Friend,

I’m not really sure what to call you, so ‘friend’ will do, I guess. You keep changing your name, or having it changed for you, but we know who you are. And we’ve been through a lot together.

You seemed different when we met—a bit conventional perhaps, and quite rooted in your community. Your interests, however, were global—indeed, universal. And you taught me, even before it became a feminist mantra, that ‘the personal is political’.

Together we’ve shared a commitment to causes as old as the hills—such as the poverty that shames us all—and newer ones like inequality and the environment. We’ve changed our vocabulary to emphasise empowerment, and we’ve changed our partnerships to reflect where power and resources often lie.

That’s one big difference isn’t it? 40 or even 20 years ago ‘social enterprise’ wasn’t a term I knew, and Corporate Social Responsibility wasn’t a phrase that tripped off my tongue. It was all about the state and our relationship with it—first identifying new issues and getting governments to take them on, and then, later, becoming professional providers of services ourselves. We wanted to be at the heart of government and we accepted commissions and contracts. And then we felt betrayed when we were under-cut by others.

But those others became our partners—and often our funders—as we embraced social enterprise and collaborations that brought in new money, people, and investments.

I think we’ve both become adept at supping with all sorts of devils, and we’ve also come to realise that we aren’t the only ones driven by a passion for fairness and justice. We’ve learned that we too need to demonstrate good governance and accountability, and to provide evidence for what we do.

Which is fortunate, because raising our voice, getting our issues noticed, has led to us being examined like never before. The distrustful gaze with which we’ve looked upon businesses and the state is now directed at us too. Our regulation, accountability, governance and practices are under close scrutiny.

So, what will the next decade or two bring? I’m sure you will survive the current onslaught of media and political attention. New generations of activists will continue to see you as the vibrant, ever-changing force you are. Whatever society needs you’ll be there—strong and stroppy. You won’t be silenced.

And as the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing pointed out, you’ll have new resources coming to you. Never before has there been so much social capital tied up in the life experiences of a generation—one that benefited from extended school leaving age, the expansion of higher education, and extraordinary medical and scientific advances.

So, sweet charities, bold social entrepreneurs, visionary voluntary sector champions—it hasn’t been easy but it’s been worth doing. We’ve had some notable achievements, but we haven’t yet put ourselves out of a job, so there remains work to be done. In some ways I’m sad you’re still needed, but I’m still glad to be your friend.

Happy Valentine’s Day.