Cathy Pharoah: From big ideas to small steps, it's all become a bit Alice in Wonderland

Scale has become more important, with emphasis shifting from big government to big society, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

A demand for better ways of achieving change is one outcome of having a new government.

Strategists have been challenged to find new ways to do things, whether raising funds, solving problems or meeting needs. The emphasis has shifted from big government to big society, and from heavy-handed regulation to lighter influencing of people's behaviour. Whatever the approach, it is noticeable how important scale has become: big society with small government; micro-enterprise with global scalability. But is all this obsession with size beginning to feel a bit Alice in Wonderland?

Big cuts are expected, and it seems we need a lot of other big things to deal with them. Big society, the Big Give, big ideas, a big bank and now - from the NCVO - a Big Ask. The feeling is that only ambitious, visionary, grand designs and giant leaps can solve today's challenges: ideas such as the US Giving Pledge, in which billionaires give away billions. It's been suggested a UK Giving Pledge could raise £60bn, solving some of the world's most pressing problems. If true, this would double the size of the sector.

But at the same time the opposite approach is attracting interest - small, stealthy, cumulative change. This is about 'nudging' people; allowing them freedom to make choices, but altering the context in which they are made so they are nudged in the desired direction. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge, a book popular in government circles, suggested that people could be persuaded to donate more if their giving commitment did not start for a couple of months. Julian Le Grand, a former policy adviser to Tony Blair, recently rejected dependence on grand gestures by billionaires and suggested a better alternative was to enable inherently generous people to commit an additional 1 per cent of tax to charity through their tax forms - an 'opt-out' choice. Telling people how well their gifts compare with others' as a way of prompting giving has also been put forward. And if social networks popularise small changes, their power can be enormous. My own idea is that shelves of charity collecting tins could replace chocolate bars at supermarket checkouts.

Uncertainty rules as we look for ways to fill gaps in spending cuts. It's tempting to latch on to a new idea, but salutary perhaps to go back to Alice, who "had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way".

- Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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