Peter Stanford: 'Loose and baggy' defines the sector perfectly

Loose, in the sense that every charity is different, and baggy, because we don't always do things in a text-book management way, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

I like it when I read a phrase that catches in a single, pithy combination of words a sentiment I have been struggling long-windedly to encapsulate for far too long.

And so my knee genuflected before the description - coined by the Third Sector Research Centre academics Rob Macmillan and Heather Buckingham - of the charitable world as a "loose and baggy monster". I know just what you mean, and I could not have put it better.

Their discussion paper, A Strategic Lead for the Third Sector?, comes at a particularly difficult moment for the sector. Various self-publicising and often competing leadership bodies claim to be articulating the views of all charities, their employees, supporters and trustees, but they often end up saying the very opposite of what I think. Perhaps that is a function of democracy and I am a grumpy old man, but I'm still, after all these years, waiting for one of these 'representative' organisations to seek me out to hear my views - or indeed those of anyone else I have ever met in this relatively small world we inhabit.

And then there is the government as it rushes to off-load public services into our laps, desperate for a single uniform point of contact with our sector to work with. If only it were that simple. The truth - hard as it is appears to be for many to swallow - is that this isn't just one 'third sector', but three, times three, times three, times three recurring. Mega-charities sometimes seem as if they have more in common with government departments or multinationals than they do with small, locally based, volunteer-led organisations.

I was approached recently by a philanthropist who wanted to study the relationship between chief executives and chairs of trustees. This, she correctly pointed out, is the single most important relationship in a charity; if it goes wrong it throws a cloud over all else. But this tension is hardly news. Her laudable aim is to draw up a set of guidelines to eliminate the problem, based on wisdom already available across the sector.

Should that be a single set of guidelines, or several that take into account size, resources, history and ambitions? The first, I would suggest, is hard to achieve for all the reasons stated above. But if you opt for the second, then the very act of drawing up categories makes them self-defeating - because we are a "loose and baggy monster": loose, in the sense that every charity is different; baggy, because we don't always do things in a textbook management way (our strength as well as our weakness); and a monster because there are a lot of egos in this corner of the world and too often you get a savaging.

So should we give up on attempts at collective action? The authors of the discussion paper advise not, and I am inclined to agree. They highlight the good work done by bodies that speak up for charities with shared concerns - NHS-related, prisons or mental health, for example. When I was chair of a spinal injuries charity, I was keen that we took every opportunity to talk with one voice with others in the same field. More recently, as part of a trust that deals with the education of prisoners, I have been involved with the formation of a prison learning alliance.

It is a different model from the sector-wide megaliths, but more representative and more effective. Perhaps there are other forms of joining forces we could explore. Most of our efforts up to now have concentrated on front-of-house functions - joining up to talk about policies, delivery or services. But what about the back-room stuff? Might groups of charities with similar financial operations, for instance, form effective alliances to lobby for better treatment by banks, tax authorities and financial regulators? Or for clearer guidelines on what remains the nightmarish complexity of VAT as it relates to charitable activities? We could join together to save money, and therefore spend the money donors give us more effectively.

The potential is there. It just needs to be driven by real needs rather than by outsiders' appetites, such as the government's agenda or that remorseless taste for bigger being better, which mistakes size for effectiveness. This lean, trim, streamlined, sector-wide vision is not serving us well. "Loose and baggy" sounds much more attractive - like that loose and baggy jumper than enables me to do much more than my tight-fitting suit, however superficially smart it might look.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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