Charities must face up to the idea that they might not continue to be important in the future, according to Kath Abrahams, director of engagement and fundraising at Diabetes UK.
Speaking about the future of civil society at Third Sector’s Fundraising Conference in central London today, Abrahams warned that charities might become less relevant to people who felt more empowered to go out and make an impact themselves.
But she added that this might not be a bad thing if the impact on a charity’s cause was still being made.
"I think one of the biggest challenges to us as a sector is whether charities are going to continue to be important to people in the future," she said.
She pointed to last year’s report by Civil Society Futures, which said that charities still had a role to play.
"But civil society is actually any of us taking action in the way we see fit to make good change in the world, so us understanding how we as charities maintain our relevance is, I think, one of the biggest challenges," Abrahams said.
"Particularly when you’re part of a large national charity, being able to share and make it clear what difference you are making is going to be absolutely critical."
Charities would need to have an answer for supporters who asked why they needed charities and could not simply set something up on their own, she said.
But Abrahams added: "We are not here for our own benefit: we have to be about impact and, if the result is that we are less relevant but the impact is greater, then so be it.
"I happen to believe that we have lots to add and lots of impact to make, so I think it’s partly about us understanding where it’s better for us to make impact, where it is better for other people to do it and where is it better for us to work in partnership."
She said partnership working was not something the sector had been great at in the past.
Paul Amadi, chief supporter officer at the British Red Cross, agreed that charities should not be afraid of disintermediation and said they also had a convening role to play, bringing together other organisations, activists and states to have an impact.
"We talk about these changes and frame them as a negative, but if they force us to be honest and do that evaluation piece then that’s good," Amadi said. "I think history will judge us poorly if we retreat into our own cul-de-sacs.
"There’s another dimension we need to confront: we want to move from something transactional to something that’s much more of a relationship, based on a deep understanding of supporters’ needs and wants.
"That's all about a long-term relationship, which means it’s going to take a long time to bring return on investment – but I don’t think our organisations are understanding or recognising that. The financial paradigm is going to change in the wake of changes to fundraising."