John Tizard: Compassion is not enough - we must act on our words and thoughts

It is all very well being compassionate and passionate, but social action and hard decisions are needed to create lasting change

John Tizard
John Tizard

Compassion is a great motivator for social activists and those active in the voluntary and community sector, and almost everyone I meet in the sector demonstrates such, in as much as they display their passion for social justice, equality and fairness.

This is fantastic, but the hard fact is that compassion is not enough on its own if we are to offer support and opportunities to communities. 

Equally, passion is also a fabulous attribute and essential for anyone seeking to secure change and to motivate others. Yet it does not automatically translate into practical action and, again, on its own will not address need, inequality and injustice.

Social activism has contributed to addressing some major injustices over the centuries. Indeed, social activists have frequently been instrumental in securing change for the better, sometimes massive change at the national or even international level, but more often achieved in neighbourhoods and localities.

Every day and every week, social activists are generating change, acting as catalysts for change and making a difference. We should celebrate this.

However, to make an impact, social activism must take the form of action. This might involve stepping in and providing services to those with unmet needs. It can take the form of advocacy (for an individual or community) to ensure that they receive what they are entitled to. It might manifest itself in campaigning for changes in public policy or legislation. And it could have a local, regional, national or international focus.

The voluntary and community sector, especially at a local level, must be bold, brave and ready to challenge wrongs. It must be ready to campaign on behalf of beneficiaries and communities, ideally using evidence based on the direct experience of these beneficiaries and communities, with hard data as well as supporting narratives.  

My challenge to the local VCSs, including those in local infrastructure, is to be ready to address both the symptoms and the causes of social and economic injustice.  

More often than not, the sector is at its best when it adopts a two-strand approach. For example, the food bank movement has been a practical response to need, while at the same time challenging public policies such as the Universal Credit five-week delay and the horror of in-work poverty: action on two levels. 

The sector must not simply pass on the other side when there are gaps to be filled or policies requiring challenge, or structural inequalities to be overturned. Compassion, passion and, above all, action can combine to make a difference in the immediate and the long term.

Many voluntary and community groups, and other charities, were created to respond to injustice and need. We should be proud of this inheritance and live its values today.

The voluntary and community sector is most effective when it is true to its values and mission, and when it lives these values in both its behaviours and actions. A voluntary sector organisation – small or large, local or national – that does not live by its values and/or fails to be well-governed, well-led and properly accountable will, inevitably, be less effective and deservedly so.

It must also be clear about what it will do and what it will not do. It has to be strong enough to resist unreasonable pressure from the public sector to simply take over services. The sector can complement but should not be a substitute for the state, and should certainly not subsidise the public sector.

It should make the case that it has a voice and a representative role to play, and that it both can and wishes to contribute to strategic policy decisions (including strategic commissioning, which is not to be confused with procurement).

It should always challenge public bodies that pursue competitive tendering and market-based approaches to public services and working with the sector.  Rather, it should promote relational partnerships and the use of grants, and avoid being seduced by market-based approaches.  

A bold and confident sector will push back when local authorities and others seek relationships based only on competitive contracting and exclusion from strategic decision-making. Such approaches are not in the interests of communities and beneficiaries.

The voluntary and community sector should find its voice to fight all that is inappropriate and harmful. It should promote alternative policies. It should call for social justice and fairness.

It should say loudly and continually that, in the fifth richest economy in the world, there should be much reduced levels of homelessness, poverty, inequality and austerity. The sector cannot be silent on such issues if it is going to be true to its mission, values and beneficiaries.

I call on every leader in the sector to pause for a moment, to reflect and ask if you and your organisations are taking the right actions. Or are you simply taking comfort from being compassionate (and even being passionate in words and thoughts) but stopping short of taking action?

John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and chair of Navca

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