The great urban theorist Marshall Berman had a phrase for the way it feels to live in a modern society that is constantly changing: ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Fixed certainties disappear overnight. And this is both exhilarating and disorientating. It is no different in the charity sector, which sometimes seems to exist in a constant state of flux, with new ideas, new technologies, public scandals, ever-changing regulatory frameworks, a fast-moving social and political context, changing demographics, and shifting attitudes to charity. The list could go on.
Over the past 18 months here at NPC we’ve been working on an ambitious State of the Sector research project to try and understand where the charity sector is at with these changes. In Boldness in times of change we outlined the key challenges facing the sector. Then last month we published Charities taking charge, drawing on our research with over 400 sector leaders, which asks where the sector is at in responding to these challenges. And it seems that this change has caused a mixture of emotions, from hope and optimism to trepidation and fear.
Another finding is that good ideas are not always backed up by action. We found in interviews, roundtables, and our quantitative survey that there is often agreement over what the challenges are, but practical and concrete action is more difficult to find. As always, it’s necessary to move beyond soundbites and put good ideas into practice.
Over the course of our State of the Sector programme we’ve found real appetite to discuss big issues and to engage in big thinking. We’re really keen to continue the conversations that we’ve already started in Boldness in times of change and Charities taking charge. So we’re moving on to a new stage of this work with a number of essays from sector leaders, which we’ll publish later in the summer. In them, we’ll hear from people in a range of organisations facing a variety of challenges, but who are acting constructively in these changing times.
The answers our essayists have given to our question of how to adapt to change are refreshingly candid. By identifying bright spots we can spread best practice for delivering impact through, for example, new relationships with the state or new ways of involving and engaging users. The essays will be a prospective roadmap for anyone who needs to lead their organisation in times of flux. They’ll aim to provoke, challenge, and guide.
It goes without saying that change is tough. One of Berman’s ideas was that you have to be adept at moving with change, rather than just against it; you also have to be able to distinguish deep structural change from surface changes in appearance. Easier said than done perhaps. But we hope that our State of the Sector programme can help sector leaders to find their feet in a quickly changing society—and, more importantly, to help their organisations deliver even greater impact.
The State of the Sector essay collection will be published later in the summer. You can follow us on Twitter @NPCthinks and keep and eye on the hashtag #StateoftheSector. This research will go on to inform our think tank work in the coming years—so please do join the conversation as the essays are published.