Peter Stanford: Does the charity sector need a revolution?

There is a lot to be said for radical change, but opting for evolution instead can have greater benefits

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Revolution or evolution? It was a question that came up at a trustee board I sat on. We were debating a 10-year plan for the charity. Passionate voices were raised urging us to "go for it", "seize the day", "take a risk" and expand rapidly. They were very persuasive.

I wondered, as eventually I sided with the majority of more cautious souls who preferred a more gradual, incremental expansion, if I was just a coward, or one of nature’s tortoises rather than hares. That vote was a few years ago, and for that particular charity the evolutionary path is proving smooth and upward. Yet there is still a part of me that wonders if collectively we should have been bolder.

I suspect Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith would have opted for the latter course. She has told a charity conference run by the ICSA (the Governance Institute) that our sector needs nothing short of a revolution to equip it to thrive in the 21st century. Director of the Anona Development Consultancy and a former chair of the Fawcett Society, vice chair of Action Aid UK and trustee of the Equality and Diversity Forum, Goldsmith is a long-time and admired campaigner for the status quo to be shaken up, especially around questions of human rights.

Her vision of what charities need to become is certainly a challenging one. The very word would go, if she had her way, and be replaced by an international solidarity movement "of equal partners, led by our values and by people with lived experience of diversity, poverty and disadvantage".

And that is just the start. The distinction between donor and beneficiary needs to be overhauled, she argues, and a "post-colonial" approach in charities replaced by something more in tune with the modern world. That would mean the trustee board becoming more "sounding board" than overseer and its membership much more inclusive.

Quite a shopping list, with a lot of attractive ideas, but so radical when all is added up that – despite myself – I can feel myself once again retreating from revolution to evolution. Surely charities are slowly working and changing and developing already. Isn’t that what Third Sector reports month in, month out? In my own sphere, I’ve seen many positive changes in how trustee boards work and are composed in the past three decades of involvement. Much more to be done, I agree, but the risk with revolution is that it inevitably means leaving some people behind.

That would be a price worth paying, I suspect Goldsmith would say, if the clubbable feel of too many of today’s trustee boards is to be jettisoned, but thus far all efforts – and there has been considerable pushing and prodding from the Charity Commission among others in this direction – has built only a modest momentum. What we have learnt is that it is easy enough to get rid of the "old guard" on boards, but tougher to attract the desired replacements.

There is a deeper challenge, too, in calls for revolutionary change. They are based on an assumption that the current system is actually broken. Now I might be too set in my ways to accept the reality before my eyes, but I do not see sufficient evidence of problems that an evolutionary, slow-and-steady-as-it-goes approach cannot generate solutions in our sector without the risk of systemic upheaval.

It is rather like the zealots who want social enterprises to replace "past-their-sell-by-date" charities. They, too, tell us that the existing model needs a complete shake-up, though often from a different direction from that which Goldsmith is outlining. Again, and perhaps I am showing my age, but such absolutist talk, where everything is either right or wrong, alienates me. As our hair goes grey, the one compensation is that we get better at seeing the shades of grey that lie between the poles of opinion. And – however much I might still hanker after a few more revolutionaries – life thus far in the third sector has taught me that, on balance and on most occasions, the middle way-ers in the end produce the desired results.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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