Stella Smith: Reflecting on Rob Wilson's feedback

We must not ignore outsiders' views, writes our columnist, whatever source they come from

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

There are few things more cringe-inducing than hearing how others see us. Realising that they have noted habits that we hadn’t noticed ourselves is unsettling. Although it’s tempting to march on regardless, if we ignore feedback we lose an opportunity to understand how our behaviour might unintentionally be undermining our best efforts.

It was with this in mind that I read Rob Wilson’s observations on the sector from his time as Minister for Civil Society. The first thing to strike me was the comment that charities might be at risk of a group-think mentality. Really? To me, the sector feels more like a disparate collection of organisations rather than a homogeneous movement at risk of group-think.

However, it is true that we still have a lot of staff who are sector lifers. In particular, many of our senior staff joined charities early in their careers and, apart from taking time out to raise children or go travelling, have never held a job outside the sector. This means many people have similar experience and perspectives, all of them vying for just a few charity top jobs and with little real chance of promotion.

Spending an entire career in the sector demonstrates a certain commitment, but we need more fresh thinking. We need staff who are flexible enough to work in diverse organisations, who can challenge established charity orthodoxy and build relationships with people very different from ourselves. It’s great to see more people joining charities from business, but it’s time we returned the favour and started actively encouraging charity staff to widen their horizons and take some time in their careers working in commercial environments.

Mr Wilson’s comments about our image also caught my eye: are we really third in the pecking order at Westminster?! Again, this observation came as something of a shock, but on reflection maybe there’s a germ of truth in there and we need to work harder to project a strong, credible image. The sector has been prone at times to blame the media for vilifying charities when, let’s face it, we are not especially honoured in this respect. There are many subjects for tabloid criticism, so we should give up demanding that the world stop picking on us and proactively manage how we are perceived. Holding the moral high ground, insisting our expertise should be listened to and warning of dire consequences if we’re not funded is not effective. We need to focus on building relationships and finding shared solutions.

This brings me to another of Mr Wilson’s observations, which was not such a surprise: that there has been in the sector a "natural suspicion of the Conservative Party". I do recognise this, and he’s right. We have to do the very best for our beneficiaries and causes, regardless of party politics. We have to work effectively with whoever is in government to achieve the best outcomes.

As a sector we too easily avoid feedback. I have seen many individuals going to ridiculous lengths to avoid conversations they fear might be uncomfortable, dressing up appraisal forms with bland niceties to avoid offence. We need to move on from this and look at feedback as useful information that can strengthen our practices. You never know, we might just learn something, even from a former Tory minister.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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