Stephen Hale: Campaigns, collaboration and courage - three things we need more of in 2019

We face many great challenges this year, but we have more power and ingenuity than we give ourselves credit for

Stephen Hale
Stephen Hale

Can 2019 really be only three weeks old? How’s it going for you and your charity? I trust your Christmas break renewed your batteries and your optimism. Much of both has probably dissipated already. But this blog is not about the problems. It’s about how we respond and maximise our impact in 2019 and beyond. I think there are three things we need much more of this year: campaigning, collaboration and, above all, courage.

Before expanding on these, I’m afraid we need to recap the challenges we face this year. The Road Ahead, a report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations is an excellent overview. It’s not cheerful reading, though. It highlights the growing demand for the services charities provide, likely reductions in funding from local government cuts and a slow-growing economy, not to mention the huge shadow Brexit casts over political debate and decisions. These trends will make it another tough year for the voluntary sector and, far more importantly, for the people and causes for whom we exist.

These are profound challenges, but they’re not new in 2019. When we retreat from them, they only get harder to overcome. We don’t have a magic wand, but we do have more power and ingenuity than I think we have given ourselves credit for. We hold ourselves back by being too stuck in our ways and disconnected from one another. By stepping up now we can respond more effectively and increase our power and impact in 2019 and beyond.

What practically should we do? I think there are three things we need to do more of in 2019.

First, this is the year we should step up several gears in our campaigns and advocacy. The primary causes of many social and environmental trends (poverty, homelessness, carbon emissions and so on) require changes in government policy. Charities exist not just to ameliorate needs but to address their root causes. At a time when Britain’s future is so contested and uncertain it’s essential that we speak out and offer positive visions for the future.

We must do this in new ways if we are to succeed. Social Power, a brilliant report published in late 2018 by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, is a great guide. This is not just about national government, but also about enhancing our influence and role, locally and regionally.

Second, we need to collaborate far more. I’ve argued previously that collaborative leadership is the silver bullet that can overcome all challenges. I haven’t changed my mind. We’re at the foothills of where we should be, and there’s no good excuse for it.

Our causes overlap. Our work should be joined-up. Our clients often need support from more than one organisation, and we need to make that work. In campaigning, even the biggest charities need allies to succeed. Conflict benefits no-one. So, whatever our cause, 2019 should be the year third sector collaboration truly takes off. This was one of four key challenges put to the sector by the Civil Society Futures report in late 2018.

Third, and most important, we need charity leaders to be courageous, trying new approaches to meeting our missions. Every charity can rise to this, but the bigger you are and the more unrestricted funding you have, the more opportunity and responsibility you have, in my view.

At Refugee Action we are establishing a three-year Early Action programme for other charities in our field. We will test and learn from one another how to support people better at the start of the asylum process to prevent them facing crises due to a lack of knowledge.

Courage is like a muscle. It gets stronger when you use it and if you follow the right training plan. So funders have an important role in helping charity leaders to be more courageous. We need far greater investment in charity leaders to enhance our (collaborative!) leadership skills and help us put them into practice. At Refugee Action we recently ran a two-day event for our senior staff and for refugees working in other organisations, with the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

2019 will be tough. But we can’t expect things to change if we don’t change.  We can be better than we are today. More campaigning, more collaboration and, above all, more courage will give us the best chance of surviving and thriving as we work to achieve the goals that so many of us share.

Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action 

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