Michelle Wright: ‘Change is coming – we must rise up to meet it’

What a difference a year makes – not even a year; six months. We are now officially in the worst recession on record; 2020 fundraising calendars have been decimated, furlough schemes are ending soon and the sector is bracing itself for the next wave of job losses and chilling income drop stats (current NCVO estimates lie at around £12bn by the end of 2020). If ever there was a time for our sector to assess and evolve into the next phase of best practice, this is it. The way the world is organised, the way people interact, shop and donate have already shifted from our traditional 20th (19th in some cases) models. This is our opportunity to get Future Ready. History is accelerating and so must we. So, how do we keep up?

The times are (already) a-changing

Covid-19 has already fast-tracked a number of the innovations that were desperately needed in the charity sector. The green shoots already appearing around ethical standards and accountability have been flourishing in this new environment. You can see the success of campaigns/concerns around corporate philanthropy and ‘greenwashing’ in the removal of high profile petro-chemical business sponsorships. The Black Lives Matter movement’s global protests in May generated an unparalleled response, with agreement from the street to the boardroom that racism is a systemic issue – something hard to imagine before the collective stuck-at-home witnessing moment created by the pandemic.

Space is the place

How many of you reading this started your careers in the third sector in a decrepit Georgian building in a glitzy postcode? A good few, I bet. The idea that any business, let alone an established charity, needs a bricks and mortar head office in a central city location was already losing its cachet before COVID-19. Whilst some of our longest established charitable institutions may be lucky enough to have inherited prime real estate or rent-free space from generous benefactors, for the majority in our sector, it’s unnecessary and potentially a white elephant weighed down by overheads. These days, there are a wide selection of co-working spaces with conferencing facilities across the country - albeit with a few less chairs and tables thanks to social distancing. The effectiveness of working from home, helped by improvements in technologies, has been one of the revelations of the pandemic, much to the relief of an army of line managers, no doubt. Some in our sector were at the forefront of this trend. NAVCA, for example, implemented remote working in 2018.

Stronger together

If the predictions are correct, one in ten charities will close by the end of 2020. At some point, some of us are going to need to pool resources. Whilst mergers may sound like private sector-speak for a land-grab, when the primary goal is survival of support for beneficiaries not shareholder dividends, bringing struggling charities into the fold of the more resilient organisations makes sense. We should be doing what it takes to maintain the existing outreach networks and employee/ volunteer skill sets and experience, especially at a time when what we do is needed most. There is anxiety over the idea of mergers – as can be seen in the response from some disability activists around the exploration of a merger between Leonard Cheshire and Scope. However, it’s our responsibility as a sector to act ethically and responsibly to make these changes work.

Dismantling the monoliths

Historically, the bigger the organisation, the slower and harder it becomes to respond to rapid social change. Bigger charities like Cancer Research UK and The National Trust, that traditionally rely on live fundraising events, are inevitably being hit harder by Covid. Additionally, charitable giving and behaviours during the pandemic have been moving towards spontaneous, local mutual aid groups and one-off online fundraisers. Pivoting to more agile, leaner business models seems inevitable.

The revolution will be digitised

With more and more innovations and donations happening in the online space, charities will need to move where their clients are – and the donation money is. Health charities, for example, are going to need to move fast to keep up with how the NHS has changed in delivery of services. Online advice services have been on a steep learning curve in 2020. Expect more digital outreach going forward.

Going green is building back better 101

The climate crisis is going to have an effect on everything we do going forward. As governments around the world shift towards prioritising reducing carbon emissions, charities should be building in ecological considerations as a matter of course. Our sector should be embracing and lobbying where we can for a green COVID-19 recovery.

Charity sector voices will be needed in the months and years to come. There is potential for charities to collaborate and lobby for public policy to mitigate against the worst consequences of the pandemic. If our cause isn’t specifically local, now is not the time to be operating in regional silos. Many climate organisations and charities have come together to lobby for action on the ecological emergency. Welfare charities are coming together to share expertise and collaborate to press for the government to build back better. A great example of this being the 30 charity and housing organisations who recently presented the government with a road map solution to the UK’s homelessness crisis.

Change is coming whether we like or not – and we owe it to ourselves and the communities we serve to ensure we are resilient and ready to do our bit. We are not beholden to our legacy structures, neither the bricks and mortar nor the mission statements. We are beholden to the beneficiaries of our cause. We are all moving with the times, at an accelerated pace. Yes, there’s an inevitable bit of motion sickness - it’s a bumpy road ahead. But if we can hold our nerve and evolve our sector to future proof as much as
we can, we’ll be in a stronger position to cope with whatever the anthropocene throws at us in the coming months/years/decades, so we can pass along our learnings and best practice to the next generation who make it their mission to work of a fairer, safer world.

Michelle Wright is the founder and CEO of Cause4

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