Charities need to step up in 2016 - and step back

#changedbycharity is the story, writes Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

I remember my early days as a charity worker. I’d got an administrative job on the Africa Desk at Oxfam. Just an office boy, maybe, but my friends were in awe.

As I went on to do bigger charity jobs that awe grew. "Wow, how great to be doing something worthwhile" was a common response I’d get from friends climbing the steps of one corporate ladder or another. It was a good feeling.

How times have changed. 2015 was, well, just dismal. What did you get asked when you caught up with friends over New Year? There’s no getting away from the fact that charities have lost their way and public disquiet is real. Plenty has been said about that, and plenty more will come as regulatory changes get worked out and charities adjust to the implications.

But it would be a shame if 2016 were a year of meek navel-gazing without a collective shout-out for all that is good about charity. (And that’s not to be in denial that things needing fixing, before any naysayers weigh in. I’ve written plenty in this column about the sector’s identity crisis, and forces that have contributed to charities losing touch with their public constituency, roots and values.)

The charity sector has got itself caught between needing to be professional and efficient to have greatest impact, and a public perception that an ideal charity is one run on voluntary goodwill. Charities might have changed dramatically into the 21st century, They come in all shapes and sizes, often in step with the scale of their mission, sometimes not. What’s important is that they now pull together around what they have in common.

But the essential values of charity are just the same – a human instinct to do something to help others, to change things for the better, enrich things in life, and to come together to do that. Charity is more accessible and democratic, a bigger part of today’s society. More people participate in more ways, and it touches more people in more ways than you can imagine. Even you.

Both my grandmothers at the end of their lives were helped not just by NHS professionals but also by charities offering support to deal with blindness and immobility in the home, and nursing care. Social care services are just amongst the most obvious and bigger things made possible by people’s charity.

There’s also humanitarian response to international emergencies, and half of all medical research. Slavery and apartheid were campaigned against by charity. Equality for women, minority groups and disadvantaged people, fought for by charity. Nature reserves, natural environment and heritage, all protected by charity.

Then there’s the not-so-obvious stuff, in the community. I grew up without my dad. There wasn’t the child bereavement support there is today, and volunteer scout leaders and rugby coaches helped me through my adolescence. My kids’ schools have benefited from the support of PTAs and volunteer governors, and my wife’s been one.

The local playground got refurbished as a result of community action. Children are safer on our streets because of cycling proficiency classes, and residents’ campaigns for pedestrian crossings and traffic calming. We enjoy the theatre and arts – made possible by grants, yes – but an awful lot of charitable funding as well. Our cats came from local animal rescue foster homes. There’s the allotment association.

There are many other ways charity has benefited me and my family, not all I want to share. I’ve benefited from contributing too, from being a volunteer teacher in Sudan in the 80s, to the difference I know my various giving and volunteering makes now. I’ve had the privilege through my work to see first hand how charity has changed a lot of things, in the UK and overseas. I’ve been changed by charity as well.

You too? Take a moment to think about it, and what really matters. No doubt, charities have got some stuff wrong, and need to step up in 2016 to start putting it right. But crucially, it’s important to remember that the charity story is not about charities anyway, it’s bigger than them, and it’s about time we told more of it.

To borrow and adapt a couple of phrases, charity is nothing if not of the people, by the people and for the people. Charities just exist to help people achieve the change they want to see in the world. Don’t you think?

So what’s been #changedbycharity that’s made you proud or thankful? Want to share it? There’s a hashtag for that.

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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