Charities must focus on shared identity as well as individuality

In the nine years I’ve spent learning my way around the charity sector, one of the things that’s struck me most starkly is the immense value placed on uniqueness.

Every charity can wax lyrical about the ways in which its approach is different from anything else that’s out there. A mentoring charity that emphasises the depth and length of its relationships. A community anchor organisation that focuses on its utterly holistic and tailored approach to each person it works with. An older people’s charity that differentiates itself through its use of older volunteers to deliver all its activities in the community.

Individuality is absolutely a core principle, it seems, of the charity sector. This seems intuitively right. There’s a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that each charity brings – its added value; the edge it has over other alternatives be they other charities, public or private sector organisations. And it’s certainly an attractive ideology – it resonates with the extremely personal, human nature of charities’ work, with their focus on values, and the primacy of understanding and relating to individual service users, customers and beneficiaries.

But there can be a cost to uniqueness when it becomes a ‘cult of the individual’ – a cost that often doesn’t seem to be factored in to the charity sector’s thinking.

That cost is the powerlessness of fragmented, atomised individuals compared to united, coherent groups. This was brought home to me recently when I met with a group of charities, funders and consultants under the banner of the Inspiring Impact programme, to talk about shared impact measurement frameworks. While there’s clearly appetite from the sector to move towards shared frameworks within areas that make sense, there’s also a fear that it could lead to standardisation and uniformity in how charities actually work…

To read more, please visit the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network website where this article first appeared.