Martin Edwards: Charities should always be ready to challenge accepted truths

Throughout society there are things that everyone agrees cannot be changed, until someone comes along and changes them

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

Last week our charity shops were hit with a health and safety bombshell: Trading Standards got in touch to say that, in case we planned to, we were not allowed to sell Second World War gas masks. Apparently, harmful chemicals had been used in their original manufacture.

After our retail manager and I spent two seconds assessing the impact on our shop takings, I pondered the march of progress and asked her: "However did we win the war?"

There are all kinds of things we are now no longer allowed to do that previous generations just got on and did. Sometimes there are good reasons. In healthcare, for example, "risk-averse" is the order of the day and is far better than the slapdash "it’ll-be-alright-on-the-night" approach doctors might have taken in the past.

When it comes to employee relations, it is harder to tell if we are in the sunlit uplands. Every employee right can be justified on its individual merits, but we seem to have arrived at a place where you can no longer just say what needs to be said. When somebody is swinging the lead, there are cautionary tales of why it is no longer prudent to say: "Would you mind awfully if you just got on with your job: you know, that thing we pay you to do?"

However, there is one area where it is good to just shake the tree and see what happens: challenging accepted truths.

Anywhere we look in society there are things that everyone agrees cannot be changed, until someone comes along and changes them. Sport is awash with winners who did things that were considered nonsensical until everyone caught on that they worked. Emil Zatopek was an early exponent of interval training. Dick Fosbury revolutionised the high jump by jumping backwards. Ed Moses was one of the first regular users of ice baths to speed recovery. All won Olympic gold.

So ask yourself this: is there an accepted truth in your charity’s field that needs challenging? One where the stock response is that it’s too big to tackle, nothing can be done, that’s just how things are, so it becomes a cow that lies down in the middle of the road and which everyone must go around?

We had three examples of such "truths" at Julia’s House. The first was a gap in local care services in Wiltshire. The naysayers said we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, fill it. We felt the fear and did it anyway, raising £3m, aided by Guy Ritchie, to build a children’s hospice and roll out frequent home care as well.

The second is ongoing. It is wearily accepted that there are never enough children’s nurses in the UK. We established a nurse recruitment taskforce  to produce numerous innovations in recruitment and retention.

The third is next year’s goal: a campaign to reduce family crisis by increasing respite breaks for parents of seriously ill children.

Challenging these truths is about breakthrough thinking. You might no longer be able to buy a gas mask at a Julia’s House charity shop (but meet me in the car park and I might do you a deal), but these breakthroughs will count for far more.

Whatever your accepted truths, remember Robert Kennedy’s mantra: "There are those who look at things the way they are and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’"

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, which runs children's hospices in Wiltshire and Dorset

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