OPINION: Paternalism still has a place

PETER STANFORD

The decision of the RNIB to give its members a vote in running their organisation - it will now be the Royal National Institute of the Blind, not for - is a welcome move away from Victorian paternalism.

Charities working for a specific client group need to be inextricably linked with those people's everyday needs, rather than pontificating upon them from on high. Yet it has been shown time and again since the days of the Greek city states that democracy isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Take two organisations, both focused on the same disability. One is a membership organisation. The second is not, but has a high proportion of people with that disability at all levels. The first may be more PC and superficially attractive to donors. But is it any more effective because major policy decisions or trustee appointments go to the vote? Or can the second listen and act on what it hears just as effectively through a sincere commitment to informal consultation without importing the ballot box? Does a cross on a piece of paper equal involvement or window-dressing?

For me, it is the listening that is important. Waiting for a democratic mandate can be empowering or time-consuming. No two people with the same disability will react in the same way. Suggesting that there is a single "user-friendly

answer or approach for disparate individuals who happen to have the same condition is almost as patronising as handing decisions down from above.

Policy making and appointments should all be about flexibility, variety, dynamism, and innovation, horses for courses. Part and parcel of such an approach is for charities to have leaders who sometimes know better, and who therefore are willing to risk the wrath of some of the people some of the time. By their deeds they will be judged. If they get it wrong because they're out of touch with the grassroots, then they should resign.

But some of the most ground-breaking projects, schemes now regarded as best practice, would never have got off the ground if they had needed a popular mandate first.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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