John Tizard: Charity leaders must be passionate and bold - and speak out

This year will be testing for charity leaders, and they must not be found wanting, writes our columnist

John Tizard
John Tizard

Most commentators agree that 2018 will be a very challenging and tough year for the charity and community sectors.

Regrettably, it is likely to be even harder for many of their beneficiaries and communities. There will be a limit to how much charities can and should seek to mitigate the impact of harmful government policy, an economic system that marginalises many communities and citizens, and environmental change.

The contemporary social and economic environment is bleak. The so-called benefit "reforms", rising inequality, homelessness, child and in-work poverty, social division and the impact of deep, austerity-driven cuts to public services are all taking their toll. The combination is a lethal cocktail, and it is getting worse. The government seems determined to continue with more of the same policies. The consequences of economic and environmental externalities are also likely to grow, with ever more harmful consequences, especially for marginalised communities. Huge uncertainty will be rife, especially because of the potential of Brexit and wider domestic and international political fragility.

Against this backdrop, charities will wish to do what they can to protect their beneficiaries and communities. They will be seeking solutions that offer some protection, services and hope to beneficiaries, and advocacy for them.

However, services alone will be insufficient. Charities must find and raise their voices on behalf of their beneficiaries and communities. They must provide individual and collective advocacy. They must be ready and willing to campaign. They should challenge damaging public policy and advocate alternative policies. This is what many charities have always traditionally done, even if this might bring them into actual or perceived conflict with government.

One of the defining attributes that separates charities from organisations in other sectors is that they are driven primarily by their cause, mission and values. Indeed, many were founded by people with a passion for a specific cause, people who wanted to address social, economic and environmental wrongs, wished to create a fairer, more just society and economy or a sustainable environment. These founders were typically more concerned with outcomes than with spreadsheets, contracts or cosying up to any prevailing set of rules or authority. History chronicles their success in campaigning for the rights of minorities, including people with disabilities, ending horrors such as child labour and slavery, protecting endangered species and landscapes, promoting the arts and culture, and so much more.

Thankfully, there remain many charities and VCS organisations that continue this tradition, and do so without fear or favour. It is at the heart of their mission. Sadly, this is not always the case.

The lobbying gct, gagging clauses in contracts, hostile media and politicians, and personal timidity are pressurising some charities to conform or comply with the prevailing political and economic ideology of a smaller state, market-based solutions and austerity. Some charities have succumbed and some even use the language of markets and business rather than of charity and social justice.

I believe that charities have a duty to speak truth to power and, if necessary, be ready to challenge not only specific policies but also the underlying ideological and systematic causes of the issues they are dealing with. Of course, charities must avoid partisan politics, but that should not mean avoiding policy debate and campaigns.

In 2018 it is unfortunately likely to be more necessary than ever. This won’t always be easy or comfortable for charity leaders and trustees. They will need to be prudent and able to justify their interventions. Undoubtedly, however, they will need to be passionate, bold and, at times, brave.

Wherever possible, they should act collaboratively and should expect collective support from within the sector. The national sector bodies and local sector infrastructure bodies should offer cover, support and reassurance to charity leaders as the latter stand up for what is right and for their beneficiaries.

2018 will be a test of the sector’s leadership. At no level must it be found lacking.

John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and a former voluntary sector executive. He is now a trustee and chair

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