The consultant and former director of the Impact Coalition says charities should clarify the business they are in and tell the public more about it
A few weeks ago, I had lunch in Rome with my old friend Claudio Betti of the Community of Sant'Egidio. I was struck by the way the community, which works with refugees, people living with HIV and Aids, the poor and the disenfranchised, had an innate sense of its accountability to its service users. Which leads me to reflect on the UK charity sector as we start another year. What are the issues we will be facing in 2010 and beyond?
What business are you in?
I can't remember where I first heard this, but in the early 1980s Matchbox, a company that made scale-model cars, went into receivership. The reason? It had built its commercial model on the assumption that it was in the business of making die-cast model cars, rather than understanding (as its rivals, such as Hot Wheels, had) that it was really in the business of entertaining little boys.
In the US, Amtrak, which runs intercity train services, got into trouble because it thought it was in the business of running railroads. It lost out to buses and airlines, which understood their mission as getting people from one place to another.
My point is that many organisations in the charity sector need to be much more rigorous about what business they're in. Too often, we get the feeling that charities are drifting from their core mission and values, following opportunities rather than focusing on the difference they are mandated to make.
We inhabit a privileged place in the complex territory of civil society. With that privilege come many benefits, but also significant responsibilities. I suggest that in 2010 we might be wise to tend to these a little more carefully. One way we can do this is to be much more intentional about improving our impact reporting. There are some great resources available to help charities articulate the combination of stories and numbers that would help us, as a sector, secure our privileged and independent position.
Listening to the public
Charities have fantastic, often humbling, support from the public in so many ways - and yet there is still a huge deficit of understanding. When I talk to people about charities, I'm often struck more by what they don't know, or by what they think they know, rather than by what they do know. The urban myths about charities are out there, alive and kicking in the saloon bars of our public houses. As a sector, we have done really rather little to educate (in the best sense of the word) the people on whom we rely for support. New media and social networking are providing some tools and impetus to improve our performance in this area, but there's still a long way to go.
Don't give up on transparency and accountability
A few months ago, the Impact Coalition moved from its birthplace at the Institute of Fundraising to a new home in Acevo. I still believe that transparency and accountability should be on the agenda of every chief executive in the sector, and am confident that Acevo is the best place from which to achieve this. But Impact is a movement - a campaign within the sector - and campaigns need movement and energy. It's time to see Impact emerge from a period of reflection, confident that its agenda is really important, equipped to lead and resource the sector and unafraid to say things that may be uncomfortable and challenging.
Next year, I shall enter my sixth decade: I reflect a little more, and melancholy comes a little easier. But when I sit down for a meal with old friends like Claudio, whose vision to change things has been a forming influence in my past and remains a reality of action and engagement in the present, I feel pretty hopeful about the future. Happy new year!