Craig Dearden-Phillips: Believe it or not, I think we can learn something from Donald Trump

Charity sector leaders tend to be consensus-seekers, but sometimes, like the president, you need to burn bridges to get things done

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

What can third sector leaders learn from Donald Trump? Yes, this a real question.

Let’s be clear. I deplore Trump’s politics and much of his personal conduct. As I write, he and his family are also facing allegations of misusing his charitable foundation.

But I am probably not alone in noticing, with discomfort, that his approach at times succeeds where others have failed.

I admire the fact that he is utterly and completely unconventional. He accepts no framework. Faced with a long-standing problem such as North Korea, he disregarded diplomatic protocol and went one-to-one with its leader, Kim Jong-un.

Likewise, on Nato, Trump is raising big, "undiplomatic" questions about how much countries such as the UK should contribute to their own defence. These are important questions that haven’t been asked in a long time and deserve an airing.

Our own sector, looked at from outside, has a fairly fixed way of conducting business. As leaders, we are schooled, like international diplomats, to be consensus-seekers and never burn bridges. In negotiations, we always look for win-wins and we avoid, assiduously, naming the elephant in the room, however big and ugly it is.

We are unfailingly polite and seldom put the other side on edge. If pressure is to be exerted, it is done with subtlety and words are carefully chosen.

Like most people in the sector, this is how I too operate. I am a consensus-builder. I am assiduously polite. I use the proper channels. I don’t risk upsetting people. In normal times, this is usually the right way to get things done.

But these are not normal times, so I wonder if our conventional ways of going about business are actually right. Who is really challenging their organisations? Who is calling people out and asking for something very different? Who is being bloody-minded and unreasonable in pursuit of their view of the good?

I see one or two people like that, but they are not taken terribly seriously. Often they are unfairly labelled as a bit unhinged. To be "credible", you also have to observe a certain code of behaviour and operating style. 

What I am learning as I watch Trump racking up some potentially historic achievements (aside of his dastardly deeds) is that our sector, as we approach 2020, possibly needs the kind of disruption that Trump has created in world politics.

There are many issues that people don’t talk much about for fear of offending others in the sector. Not least of these are the totally outdated and ineffective leading-"brand" charities, which are failing terribly. Many of these are now on the edge of insolvency, often deservedly. Another is the total bunk that is talked by almost everyone about collaboration when there is vanishingly little of it where we need it most.

It is also noticeable that certain people and organisations appear to be beyond reasonable criticism, regardless of some clear shortcomings. In the interests of being collegiate and "united" as a sector, we tend to hold back from really difficult conversations about ourselves and our sector.

Am I alone in my observations? Am I the only person with a sneaking regard for how Trump has, through a very robust approach, moved the debate, called people out and spoken truth to power? I suspect not.

Call me bonkers, but I like to think that we in the sector can learn something from everyone, including Trump.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is an independent adviser to chief executives and boards, and leads Social Club, a network of social-purpose leaders

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