The dismay among sector figures at the apparent lack of experience in the sector of the Charity Commission’s new board members reminded me of a conference for charities I attended a while ago, which had been organised by a service sector business. The headline speaker was a well-known corporate television presenter who had been brought in to add some stardust and offer his wisdom. We sat attentively, prepared to be enlightened.
He was dire. He had two key messages, imparted with the air of a man descending from on high to share priceless knowledge: we needed to “be professional” and “have clear objectives”.
Granted, this was before the safeguarding scandals in overseas aid, but our speaker was no seer or sage. He was simply talking down to us. We were too polite to take issue with being horribly patronised, so we clapped briefly and wished him well on his way.
There is a hierarchy of worship when it comes to talks. The corporate sector listens to anyone from the sporting world, the charity sector listens to anyone from the corporate sector and no one listens to the public sector. Yet we all have valuable insights to share.
We see this false hierarchy even in people who have been in our sector for a while. I recently interviewed a candidate who had moved some years ago from a big company to a charity, yet still referred to the corporate sector as “the real world”. Thank you. Next.
The charity sector has its share of incompetence and scandal, but show me a sector that doesn’t. Business, sport, politics, healthcare, the church: you can see all of human nature there.
We also see false hierarchies on charity boards. In my experience of a range of charities, the only trustees who are inclined to make snap judgements and lecture the staff are men of around retirement age from moderately successful corporate backgrounds. They assume they know best and must sort out these bumbling charities. There should be a term for businessmen who lecture good causes: I’m voting for “bizplaining”.
Bizplainers who think we don’t know what we’re doing should go down to the local youth club, food bank, drug rehabilitation centre or palliative care provider. If they just watched and listened, they would find innovation, dynamism, impact, and even professionalism and clear objectives.
I recently attended a talk at a business forum at which the speaker suggested workplace stress wasn’t all that bad because, as he put it, “at the end of the day, has anybody died?” I refrained from pointing out that I worked for a children’s hospice.
But here are a few questions for bizplainers. How would you respond when a child in your care is old enough to know that they are dying and understands all that they are about to lose? Or when a parent is falling apart and you can’t give them more respite breaks? Or when you are trying to comfort bereaved relatives? Or if you are trying to raise money for essential services when people say no without hearing you out? Could you cope with all that and yet know that your charity depends on you keeping your strategic focus?
Direct experience is hard earned. We can do without being patronised into the bargain.
Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, which runs children's hospices in Wiltshire and Dorset