Opinion: Our culture is one of ruthless compassion

Peter Cardy

There is a constant burble about the 'culture' of the voluntary sector from people in public undertakings or private enterprise. Remember when Alan Milburn told us we'd have to clean up our governance if we wanted to do business with government? It would be poor taste to mention Formula One or peerages.

The culture of the sector is typified by the people who choose to work in it. They are often here precisely because they don't want to work for someone else's profit or statutory duty. The price is often the belief in everyone's right to have an opinion. There are a few leaders from the Alan Sugar caveman school of brutality, but the implosions they provoke mean they tend to be birds of passage.

How many of us have been patronised by senior corporate figures assuming we are harmless do-gooders who need the benefit of their methods, but haven't any idea what we actually do? Sadly, too, there is a roll-call of senior recruits from the commercial and public sectors who have been unable to cope with charity culture, making the uncommon individuals who do thrive a cause for celebration.

Founders shape the culture of charities. Sue Ryder and Leonard Cheshire were active in the day-to-day running of the charities they founded until late in their lives. Their powerful Christian mission, fierce sense of destiny and mutual competition, as well as their unique personalities, shaped conduct and culture until long after they disengaged. The culture of St Christopher's Hospice was purposefully formed by Cicely Saunders, and it has reverberated throughout the hospice movement, now comprising almost 200 independent organisations.

But there are also living founders whose grip is so tight they are throttling their charities.

Do chief executives shape the culture of charities? I hope so. About 20 years ago I coined the term 'ruthless compassion'. It means single-minded concern for the beneficiaries of the charity, but it also means care for the volunteers and staff, without whom we can serve neither our people nor our cause. Many former colleagues have taken the idea with them to new places. One former manager said of me: "He'll never tell you what to do until he's made you work it out for yourself." A lot of others have carried that idea with them too.

What is culture anyway? The definition I like is: "Culture? It's the way we do things round here."

- Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support.

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