Charity leaders need to ‘spearhead’ lived experience work, think tank urges

A strategic approach led by senior leaders is essential to avoid tokenism, NPC says

(Photograph: Kampus Production/Pexels)

Charity leaders need to “spearhead” active engagement with people with lived experience to prevent tokenism, a think tank has urged. 

Buy-in from senior leaders is essential to building meaningful engagement with people with lived experience of social issues, research from New Philanthropy Capital has found.

The think tank worked with 10 charity partners and a steering group of sector leaders to produce a guide for senior leaders wishing to centre lived experience in their charities.

The guide notes that a strategic approach is crucial to avoid tokenism and adds that this is only possible when spearheaded by senior leaders.

It says: “Lived experience will have a meaningful impact on your organisation when it changes what you do, how you do it, or the impact you have – and when taking part benefits the experts by experience involved.

“For this to be a significant change, centring lived experience in a strategic and systemic way across your organisation is key.”

NPC found 12 common themes to help charities centre lived experience in a meaningful way, including active commitment from senior leaders, adaptability in order to remain accessible to all individuals, and clarity about the reasons for engaging with those with lived experience.

The guide includes tips to encourage buy-in and active engagement from fellow senior leaders on centring lived experience, such as creating a short board paper that summarises the benefits and risks of doing so. 

It also includes a number of case studies about engaging with lived experience from major charities such as Barnardo’s, Rethink Mental Illness and Carers Trust. 

Bec Hanley, a facilitator from the Shared Learning Group on Involvement and member of NPC’s lived experience steering group, said: “Without the active commitment of senior leaders – chief executives, those working at director level and trustees – it’s only possible to go so far with this work.”

Hanley added the NPC’s new guide “fills a gap” in existing guidance on the topic by offering information aimed specifically at senior leaders.

Naomi Chapman, senior consultant at NPC and co-author of the guide, said: “We work with charities every day who are committed to learning from lived experience, but find it hard to make this a reality.

“We’ve focused on how to take a strategic approach because we found that organisation-wide cultural change is required for involvement work to maximise its impact.”

NPC worked with charities including Cancer Research UK, Criminal Justice Alliance, Refugee Action, Rethink Mental Illness, Revolving Doors and Young Women’s Trust for the research. 

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