Stella Smith: We must start looking at the bigger picture

The sector must stop getting involved in petty arguments if it is to move forward, writes our columnist

Life used to be so straightforward. Thirty years ago we had opposing teams for everything: USSR v USA; Thatcher v Scargill; Pepsi v Coca-Cola. You picked your side and cursed the other. Simple.

Today it's not so easy. With the internet and globalisation, we've had to concede that there are many different perspectives and varied experiences. Life in the charity sector has never been less clear-cut. The environment in which we work is unpredictable, with multiple interests to balance, stakeholder needs to consider and trends to monitor. And it seems that we have yet to develop the skills, confidence and culture to appreciate and manage this complexity. Too often we fall back into the comfortable familiarity of finding an adversary to attack. In doing so, we risk generalising and simplifying difficult issues and overlooking important aspects of some complex situations.

The recent exchange between Ian Theodoreson, chair of the Charity Finance Group, and Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, was a prime example. The former criticised the government for having no vision for the sector. The latter called for the sector to abandon outdated practices. Presumably each side now retreats to its corner and counts its points, before preparing for the next encounter. Interesting debating practice, perhaps, but is this dialogue helpful to our understanding? Does this finger-pointing really take us forward?

It's not just at the senior levels of charities that this behaviour is prevalent.

At every level I see inordinate amounts of time shamefully wasted as indignant directors, managers, staff and volunteers defend positions and attack perceived foes. Meanwhile, the very real concerns of members, service users and beneficiaries go quietly unnoticed.

We too easily take fixed positions. This might help channel our anger, making us feel like we're being strong and assertive and putting the world to rights. But while our egos are pumped and the adrenaline courses through our veins, we are unable to see clearly and think strategically. Our ability to feel empathy shuts down. As we strive to win the argument, we lose sight of the bigger goal and get stuck in unproductive discussions.

Charities are often born out of a passion, a sense of something being very wrong or unfair. Indeed, a charity's ability to point out an injustice is critical and there are times when charities do need to take a stand. But we must not forget that there are no easy answers to the challenges we're dealing with. If we want to have a positive impact, we have to work alongside other people, including those who are very different from ourselves and whose views we don't agree with - even people we don't like.

It's time to change the conversation. Let's start exploring other ideas and perspectives rather than finding fault. Instead of competing to be first with a definitive answer, let's strengthen our understanding of trends and implications. Rather than getting locked into a hesitant deadlock because we're afraid of getting it wrong, let's develop our confidence in making informed decisions and managing the consequences. Rather than solving complexity, let's accept and manage it. Then we can really start making a positive difference.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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