Rosamund McCarthy: Thought leadership is alive and well

Third Sector, 29 March 2010

Rosamund McCarthy

Rosamund McCarthy

And it has moved out of men's clubs, says our columnist

It is not my habit to use this space to question the views of my fellow Third Sector columnists. However, Simon Hebditch's recent piece about Lord Dahrendorf did cause me to ponder. I agree that Lord Dahrendorf was an intellectual powerhouse who made an outstanding contribution to civil society. But I take issue with Hebditch's conclusion that there is no thought leadership today.

The sector has undergone seismic changes in the past 20 years. Lord Dahrendorf and his peers - Lady Winifred Tumim, Luke FitzHerbert, Andrew Phillips and Michael Brophy - can take credit for much of this progress. But nostalgia for the past is at best misplaced, and at worst dangerous. Today's sector is less top-down and more democratic, and grass-roots campaigners and service users have a much bigger voice.

Eighteen years ago, when I started my legal training, Andrew Phillips often went to meetings of the Council for Charitable Support with Lord Dahrendorf and the great and the good. I assume that many high-brow matters were discussed at these meetings. They also had a practical effect, and led to significant charity tax breaks.

However, there was no transparency about the council's decisions; there were no blogs or Twitter feeds. The council sometimes met at the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall, which at the time excluded female members. Can you seriously imagine a sector meeting happening now in a male-only club? The council was a group of public school-educated liberals dispensing their wisdom. And on many levels, thank god for them.

Today we have new leaders: Geoff Mulgan at the Young Foundation, who recently chaired the Carnegie Inquiry into the future of civil society; and Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society of Arts. But leadership is much more diffuse than that.

Whether it is the NCVO's emerging leaders commission, which is instituting curry house discussions across the country, or the Clore Social Leadership Programme, run by Dame Mary Marsh, we are seeing a more bottom-up, egalitarian form of leadership.

Expertise is spread, not dispensed from on high as part of a benign paternalism. Our modern sector has access to far more information and analysis. There are myriad opportunities to contribute and be heard. I am constantly astounded by the dynamism in the sector and the bubbling up of ideas - ideas that I would much rather discuss in a curry house than in the Athenaeum.

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite and writes in a personal capacity.

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