Stella Smith: Is it such a bad thing if charities are inward looking?

Done wisely, introspection can be a great strength - we need the courage to tackle our own problems

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

Are charities really too inward looking? And if they are, is that such a bad thing? At his leaving party, the outgoing chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Sir Stuart Etherington, commented that the sector had become "too inward looking, too introspective, too worried, too fearful".

There may be some truth in his observation. But used wisely, introspection can be a great strength.

If you have ever worked in a large charity, you will know that they can tend to be internally focused. As with all big organisations, the huge challenge of coordinating many people and departments can lead to a fixation with process and procedure.

It’s also true that people who work in charities, like everyone else, tend to gravitate towards people like them. This means we can all find ourselves in an echo chamber, reinforcing each other’s prejudices and assumptions. Combine these natural tendencies with the bruising PR we’ve had in recent years, and you can quite understand why the sector might have become preoccupied with soul searching.

However, taking some time out to reflect is not a bad thing. After all, a focus on being relentlessly extroverted and externally focused is not always helpful. Just because an organisation is creating a huge commotion in the world, that doesn’t mean it’s doing good work. We all know people who create noise wherever they go, but whose lack of reflection can be hugely counterproductive.

Introspection can lead to insights that spark really important change. Take for example the #CharitySoWhite movement, which has shone an uncomfortable light on unconscious bias and prejudice within the sector. In doing so it has prompted many of us to stop and question our practices and assumptions.

This was highlighted in the article by Save The Children UK’s organisational lead, Steven McIntosh, about the practical action the charity is taking to "stop being so white". #CharitySoWhite has inspired some necessary self-examination, encouraging staff to reflect on their privilege, acknowledge their power and challenge their assumptions about how they involve others. That can only be a good thing.

Collette Philip, who participated in the #CharitySoWhite campaign, commented that the movement "is not an attack – it’s a call to action". This is true of all introspection: it’s not an end in itself, but a spur to get better. After all, it’s only by realising and acknowledging our shortcomings that we can do something about them.

One of the biggest lessons for the sector in recent years has been that charities cannot separate what they do from how they do it. If we motivate people by continually shouting at them, then the motivation will be short-lived. If we raise funds using unethical methods, that undermines the value of the funds. If we exclude people with different genders, backgrounds, ethnicities from our decision-making, then it undermines our decision-making. The ends do not justify the means.

Our internal ways of working cannot be separated from our external targets. If we are to be effective externally, then we need to have the courage and honesty to tackle our own problems. That doesn’t mean obsessing over them, but just spending some time critically assessing our own practice so that we can improve and be greater leaders for change.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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