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Rediscovering Our Roots: A Call for Radicalism and Collaboration in the Charity Sector

As a former CEO of a small charity and current charity consultant, I often reflect on the evolving landscape of our sector. Recently, Paul Streets, outgoing CEO of the Lloyds Bank Foundation, delivered a parting eulogy to the voluntary sector that has really struck a chord with me. Streets’ reflections on the state of the charity sector, particularly the role of small local charities, provide valuable insights that are worth exploring further. In this blog, I’ll delve into his key arguments, drawing on my own experiences and perspectives to echo his call for more radicalism and collaboration in the charity sector.


The Invisible Majority: Small Local Charities

Streets begins by acknowledging the vast majority of charities that operate below the radar of public consciousness. These are the small local charities that make up the bulk of the sector. They often go unnoticed, overshadowed by the few household names that dominate the public’s perception. Yet it's these small charities that are the lifeblood of our society, with an unrivalled reach into local communities and their needs that deserves far greater respect.


From my own experience, the impact of small local charities can never be overstated. These organisations are rooted in their communities, often emerging from the efforts of a few individuals who see a need and take action. They build trust and rapport with people who may feel alienated by larger institutions, providing a level of personal connection and support that can be truly transformative.


The Essence of Charity: Radicalism and Activism

A central theme in Streets’ reflections is the radical and activist roots of the charity sector. At their best, charities challenge the status quo, innovate, and advocate passionately for change. This spirit of radicalism is what drives meaningful progress and helps address the root causes of social issues.


In my own career, I have seen how powerful this approach can be, with the deaf charity sector achieving notable outcomes like the BSL Act 2022 and the introduction of a BSL GCSE. More and more I see deaf charities embrace their role as agents of change, work together, and in recent years start to see the kind of progress they could only dream about ten or twenty years ago. They are no longer content with merely treating the symptoms of social problems; like some other charities, they seek to address the underlying causes. This often involves strident advocacy, shining a light on what “better” looks like, and pushing for systemic change.

An image showing a radical fist and pointing to the majority slice of a pie chart representing the charity sector. The headline says: "Small local charities: Rediscovering roots - a call for radicalism and collaboration'. Against a light green background.
Rediscovering Roots

The Pitfalls of Contracting

One of the most compelling points Streets raises is the danger of government contracting. In my own small way, I too have warned about this for years: it's for this very reason I adopted my alias 'The Boiling Frog'. Too many charities, in their pursuit of funding, have become entangled in underfunded and substandard contracts. This not only compromises their ability to deliver quality services but also risks co-opting them into the very systems they should be challenging.


I have experienced this firsthand. Years ago, in a first meeting with a newly appointed commissioner, they told me they didn't agree with the argument that a sign language interpreting contract (which we had recently won) should be kept outside a much larger interpreting and translation services contract that had gone to a national organisation. Over the duration of the contract, I was able to convince this commissioner otherwise and we won the next contract as well. But negotiating with a commissioner who was so clearly in favour of centralising contracts was tough and at times it did compromise my ability to challenge the systemic failings deaf individuals face every day.


The allure of government contracts can be strong, but they often come with strings attached that undermine a charity’s independence and effectiveness. The focus shifts from mission-driven work to meeting the narrow requirements of the contract: in the case just mentioned, from making sure we provided an exemplary BSL interpreting service rather than advocating for a better overall experience for deaf people in a hearing-dominated environment. This can lead to mission drift and diminished impact.


Streets calls for a reevaluation of this approach, urging charities to reject contracts that compromise their values and effectiveness. Instead, he advocates for a return to our radical roots, leveraging our influence and advocacy to drive systemic change. This is a call to be bold and principled, prioritising the needs of the communities we serve over the pursuit of funding at any cost. "So how is this possible?" I hear you ask. I am not suggesting it's easy, but income streams need to come from a variety of sources to reduce the dependency on strings-attached revenue.


Building Resilience Through Collaboration

Another key argument Streets makes is the importance of collaboration and partnership. Any regular reader of this blog will recognise the theme. Charities can achieve far more by working together than they can alone. This requires setting aside organisational egos and focusing on shared goals. By doing so, we can address the complex, interconnected issues that affect our communities more effectively.


In my work, I have seen the power of collaboration. When charities pool their resources, expertise, and networks, they can create innovative solutions and amplify their impact. This is particularly important for small charities, which may lack the capacity to tackle large-scale problems on their own. By forming strategic alliances, they can access new opportunities and drive meaningful change.


Advocacy and Influencing Policy

Streets emphasises the critical role of advocacy in creating lasting change. Charities should not only provide services but also work to influence policy and address the root causes of the issues they tackle. This involves engaging with policymakers, raising public awareness, and advocating for legislative and social change.


Throughout my career, I have seen how effective advocacy can be. Small charities, in particular, have a unique ability to give voice to marginalised communities and influence policy decisions. However, advocacy requires careful planning and a strategic approach. It is important to build strong relationships with key stakeholders, gather robust evidence to support your case, and communicate your messages clearly and persuasively. Again, the deaf charity sector serves as a good example here: we need less duplication of deaf awareness week announcements from numerous local deaf charities and more of the kind of strategic leadership now being shown by the British Deaf Association (BDA), which other deaf charities are able to get behind in a BSL Alliance.


The Three Big Issues: Inequality, Inclusion, and Climate Change

Streets identifies three critical issues that the charity sector must focus on: inequality, inclusion, and climate change. These issues are interconnected and affect all aspects of society. Addressing them requires a concerted effort from charities of all sizes and types.


Inequality, an ever-widening gulf between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', is a pervasive problem that affects health outcomes, social care, and economic opportunities.


Inclusion is essential for creating a just and equitable society, ensuring that everyone has a voice and a place. But remembering that success can only be measured by those who are deemed 'included'. I vividly recall attending one presentation by a local NHS Trust proudly announcing the positive feedback it was receiving from patients, but then unpicking the figures to see how the feedback only came from a very narrow section of the local population, which suggested a lack of accessibility around the feedback form itself.


Climate change is an existential threat that requires urgent action to protect our planet and future generations. This is a responsibility we all share, whatever our mission.


Charities have a crucial role to play in addressing these issues. By advocating for fairer distribution of resources, promoting inclusive practices, and driving environmental sustainability, we can create a better future for all.


Conclusion: A Call for More Radicalism and Collaboration in the Charity Sector

The challenges and opportunities that Streets has highlighted in more than one of his articles and speeches as the outgoing CEO of the Lloyds Bank Foundation are ones that I personally concur with, based on my own experience. I strongly believe that by understanding and addressing these issues, small charities can navigate the complex funding landscape, build resilience and sustainability, and ultimately make an even greater impact in their communities.


For charity leaders and practitioners, the key is to remain adaptable and proactive. This means staying informed about changes in the funding environment, investing in organisational capacity, and being open to new ways of working. It also involves building strong relationships with funders, partners, and stakeholders, and advocating for the needs and rights of the communities you serve.


Paul Streets has been an amazing advocate for small charities during his time as CEO of Lloyds Bank Foundation. As he moves on to pastures new, let's all of us keep his message alive and rethink the way we do charity.


 

Close-up of Jenny Hopkins outside and  leaning against a brick wall.
Jenny Hopkins, creator of 'The Boiling Frog'

Jenny Hopkins is the creator of The Boiling Frog. After an early career in publishing, she moved to the charity sector as CEO of a regional frontline charity. Over a period of ten years, she was credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She now works as a charity consultant, sharing her learning and experience with senior managers and trustees. She is also in the final two years of a part-time PhD research study on the impact of marketisation on deaf charities. Her ‘Tools for Charities’ is a unique resource aimed at saving charity leaders time and stress associated with some of the regular and not-so-regular tasks associated with charity leadership and governance.


Jenny uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She is a director of Penleaf Limited, a business consultancy with B-Corp accreditation, and on the board of trustees for two charities.

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