I have worked in and with the charity sector for most of my career. I value what the sector stands for and the fabulous people that work here. Yet recently I’ve been struck by the lack of a unifying vision or narrative within it. I have a particular frustration with two themes that I feel often underpin our conversations, both of which I think diminish us: a preoccupation with what government should be doing for the sector, and a relentless focus on the challenge of running our organisations, as if this sector’s purpose is to run things well.
Having led a charity and an SME through the recession, I get the preoccupation for survival that comes with austerity. But I would like us to spend less time talking about internal challenges, and more time talking about the big goals and ambitions that inform our work. As NPC’s recent report on Systems Change argues, charities working in isolation and on individual social issues often end up papering over some substantial cracks. In order to change, we need to change whole systems—and to change whole systems, we need to work together.
I have found the international community often demonstrates exactly this sense of coherence or ambition—by talking about the big, complex social issues which cut across societies: poverty, inequality, gender, climate change. By doing so, they create a sense of momentum and aspiration built by a unifying and very human narrative. This is crucial to driving sector professionals to feel that they are part of something bigger than their own organisation, to encouraging collaboration and, ultimately, driving change. But this is noticeably absent in the domestic non-profit sector.
I wonder whether part of the grand vision often articulated in an international context is related to its development goals (the pre-2015 Millennium Development Goals and the recent Global Goals or SDGs—Sustainable Development Goals), and whether the lack of such a vision domestically spoke to the absence of something similar.
So, if the UK charity sector introduced its own cross-sector goals, what could some of the potential benefits be?
- I believe that people who work in the social sector would welcome such a shift in tone and message from sector leaders. They might feel closer to the issues they care about, more in touch with their reasons for working in the sector in the first place, and better able to articulate how their work fits into a bigger context.
- A unifying narrative would encourage a greater sense of shared endeavour between organisations and leaders, resulting more effective collaboration. This is in turn could strengthen civil society’s political narrative, and by extension the political capital with which it could influence power.
- The SDG development work throws an unavoidable spotlight on multi-stakeholder global partnerships. Accenture Development Partnerships, for example, talk about these partnerships in the context of a ‘convergence continuum’ which is producing a fourth sector. This may provide inspiration for more meaningful relationships between sectors at home.
- Finally, SDG implementation conversations between partners will probably involve a consideration of theories of change as well as models for multiplying impact. This language could be more present in our domestic civil society narrative. If it were, we would stand a better chance of making good decisions regarding resource prioritisation, as well as creating real progress on the issues we care about.
I think it’s time we had a collective and compelling story that raises our sights and makes us feel we can change the world we live in. As John Whitmore says ‘the conversation isn’t about the work, the conversation is the work’. So let’s make sure that, in the next 15 years, the conversations we’re having aren’t focused on ourselves, but on the huge, intimidating, complex social issues we really want to fight together.
If the UK non-profit sector were to introduce unifying, sector wide goals like the SDGs, what should they be? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or on twitter @NPCthinks.