People making plans

Embracing radical change in the charity sector

By Richard Hawkes 19 August 2021 4 minute read

This guest blog by Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of the British Asian Trust, discusses how the UK charity sector has performed during the Covid-19 pandemic and sets out why charities must seize this opportunity to radically change how they work. Richard will be speaking at our upcoming annual conference in October, for the opportunity hear more from Richard and to put your questions to him, book your ticket to NPC Ignites.

A few months ago, I was privileged​ enough to attend an event where some of the biggest names in retail were discussing the impact of Covid-19 on the high street. They all agreed that there would be profound and fundamental changes to the sector and, for some retailers, the consequences would be devastating and the end of those businesses. But overwhelmingly, they also agreed that this presented huge opportunities for the sector, that radical change could be really exciting and that, almost certainly, these changes would be positive for customers.

If only we could say the same for the charity sector.

The pandemic has offered the greatest opportunity we have ever had to radically change how we work, to put ‘customers’ first—rather than desperately trying to sustain organisations that have hardly changed for 30 years—and to base decisions on data and evidence rather than feelings. We’re supposed to be the sector that exists to drive change but more often than not the sector is​ / seems focussed on keeping itself going. Radical change is not about using Zoom a bit more. It is not radical to get people to work from home. Radical is about shifting power, merging, closing, starting up, doing everything in a fundamentally different way.

Of course, there will be some excellent examples of big changes at some charities and some great examples of really agile charities that have transformed what they do and how they do it. But overall, ​the sector looks far too similar now to when I first started working in it (many, many years ago). It’s a bit more diverse, which is great, but with a long way to go. There are still too many organisations providing the same kind of services, running the same kind of programmes, fundraising in the same kind of ways and with pretty much the same kind of structures.

I was at another event a few years ago and one of the presenters demonstrated that of the largest 20 companies in America in 1910, very few of them still existed 20 years later; but of the largest 20 charities in the UK in 1980, most of them were still in the largest 20 charities in 2000. The companies that made saddles for riding horses weren’t going to be successful once motor cars came in. Yet if this scenario had played out in the UK charity sector, the charities would have kept trying to persuade car drivers to buy saddles and then eventually asked the people making the saddles to innovate and make cars instead.

Learning from the last year

Another opportunity presented by the pandemic has been the chance to transform the way the sector is perceived by government and by the public. When the pandemic first hit, the overwhelming response from the sector (as a sector) was ‘this is going to be absolutely devastating for the charity sector and we demand that the government gives us billions of pounds.’ There was far too much focus on the survival of charities themselves, rather than on the people and the causes we exist for.

Right now, 900,000 voluntary sector workers are doing everything they can to make a difference for the causes we care about,’ said one campaign. With respect to ourselves, why should the public care about voluntary sector workers at a time when millions of people are losing their jobs and thousands of people are dying? Campaign messaging really should be about the issues and not about charity staff.

Our engagement with government was really poor. The sector was making demands of government rather than offering to help the country. Perhaps an approach more along the lines of ‘the sector fully supports the government in responding to the epidemic and wants to play the biggest possible role in responding to the crisis,’ might have led to more successful engagement and results.

Instead, the sector bodies were telling the government that the charity sector was expecting a 48% loss of income and a total loss of £4bn.

There were also examples of charities with huge reserves launching emergency fundraising appeals, which sort of undermines the reason for having those reserves. A year later, it transpires that only one in four charities were forced to use their reserves during the pandemic. Not all charities have reserves of course, but this is still remarkably low given that we were all going to fold a year ago. Plus, almost every week in the sector press, we read about yet another charity that has just had its best fundraising year ever.

Regretfully, there are some fairly consistent messages coming out of government about the sector overall: there are too many ‘representatives’; they do not know who, if anyone, has any authority; ​’we’ always seem critical of government rather than wanting to engage; ​and the engagement we do have is not very sophisticated. Whether this is true or not, it is the current narrative. If there is to be any cut through with government, then that narrative needs to change. And, again whether we like it or not, we have to recognise that many in government just don’t see our sector as a priority. We really have to change that. Let’s hope that the influencing strategy for the autumn Spending Review is more sophisticated than a few tweets into the sector echo chamber.

Even when the government decided to give the sector £750m, there was hardly a gracious response. It’s ‘a start but more is needed,’ said NCVO. I knew many people outside the UK charity sector who were facing absolute ruin and could not believe that response, at a time when people were dying because they could not get oxygen.

The work that many UK charities do is absolutely amazing but the sector could be so much more impactful. I know from experience that there are charities that move at the pace of tortoises, where process completely stifles progress. Charities need to be bold, ambitious, agile, fast-moving, data-driven, outcomes-focussed, effective and efficient.

The pandemic has provided us with the greatest opportunity we have ever had to really radically change the whole sector, from where power sits, to diversity, culture, mergers, realignments, different business models and income generation strategies. Changes in these areas would be of great benefit to our causes. We exist to bring about change and, in a world that keeps changing, if we don’t change, we stand still or go backwards. The experiences of the last year have shown us how quickly things can shift and how many of the things that we thought were impossible were actually quite easy. As we move into a post-covid world, we really must learn from the last year and embrace the radical changes that could transform the sector for the better, for ever.

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