Leaving ego at the door

Theo Clay

Above all else, strategy should be about one thing: the community you are trying to help.

At NPC, whenever we run theory of change workshops, we always start by trying to get people to identify their ‘target group’. The term always seemed a little aggressive to me, a bit like something you’d hear in the military, or worse—a recruitment agency. But at its core it’s about making sure you don’t lose sight of the people you are supporting in whatever you do.

However, too often in the sector we instead hear stories ego. Tabloids love seizing on the falls from grace of charismatic, messianic charity leaders who turn out to be frauds and bullies who end up harming their staff more than they help their beneficiaries.

Or, it will be of another big brand name embroiled in a scandal of a more insidious sort—a toxic culture or organisational cover-up with those around the boardroom table looking out of the interests of each other at the expense of the communities who they were meant to be supporting.

But more often the story of charity ego is more mundane, but no less harmful: an organisation positioning itself as the one true solution to a problem it has identified without consulting the people it serves, not understanding its place in a broader system, nor collaborating or learning from its peers.

Part of this clearly stems from a quirk of the funding model of the voluntary sector. With some notable exceptions, very few organisations are rewarded for showing a nuanced understanding of the reality of change: that they are a small component working with countless other actors to try and nudge change along.

Instead they are too often rewarded for competing with their peers for bids, and lauding tenuous stories of how they alone have achieved systemic change for their community.

In our conversations with children’s charities, the topic of mergers has come up again and again one solution to this problem. However, charity mergers are still startling rare. Eastside Primetimers found that in 2018 of the 168,000 charities in the UK, there were 86 mergers.

Moreover, our State of the Sector 2020 research found that before the crisis, this number of charity leaders discussing a merger was dropping. Fewer charities had discussed merging with another organisation this year (25%) vs in 2017 (34%). Similarly, fewer charities reported discussing changing governance structures (54% in 2020 vs 59% in 2017) and whether or not to continue with their charitable status (10% vs 15%).

This is worrying, as COVID-19 and the economic fallout are likely to push more organisations closer to the edge. These kinds of conversations will be more important than ever to have. The fact that these discussions were not happening before the crisis means that the groundwork has not be laid for charities to begin them in an emergency.

Of course, mergers are only one way for organisations to work together to better serve their beneficiaries. Our interviews have also yielded a range of interesting findings about how charities have found ways to collaborate quickly in the crisis.

However, if charities are to weather the substantial shocks coming their way, and continue to help the communities who depend on them, many will need to be having more of these existential conversations before long. In the coming months, we should all be thinking about how we can push charity leaders to make sure their strategy to weather the storm serves communities above all, and leaves the organisational ego at the door.

If you are interested in discussing this, or our strategy work we are doing alongside the Childhood Trust, please do get in touch at theo.clay@thinknpc.org.

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