How the charity sector can get better

Richard Hawkes, CEO of the British Asian Trust, thinks charity is not changing as quickly as it needs to.

The UK charity sector needs to reinvent itself very quickly or run the risk of becoming irrelevant and ineffective in modern Britain.

The primary purpose of our sector is to bring about change – to improve people’s lives, to drive positive change in society, to make the world a better place on the issues for which our organisations exist.  

During the 20th century charities were created when situations were not good and people recognised that something needed to be done – challenges such as people living in poverty in poor countries, disabled people excluded from society in the UK, children’s rights being non-existent or homeless people living on the streets.

Great charities were created and they did great things to solve these problems. There are brilliant examples of charities driving innovation, demonstrating new ways of doing things and encouraging the state to take on new responsibilities.  

But the world changes; society changes. People face new problems and challenges – and the ways of addressing these issues needs to change. And therein lies the problem. Too many charities are resistant to change or too slow to change.

too many parts of our sector keep doing the same things in the same way

We exist to bring about change in a world that is changing, and if we don’t change ourselves then we stand still, or go backwards, and become irrelevant. But too many parts of our sector keep doing the same things in the same way – providing the same services in the same way for years on end, using the same fundraising methods over and over again. And when these approaches are criticised, the overwhelming response from the sector tends to be disbelief that anyone could question the wonderful charity sector.  

For the last three years the sector has been questioned and challenged in many ways by the media and with legislation, resulting in massively declining public trust. And the sector’s response?                            

Indeed.  What has the sector’s response been? Lots of meetings, lots of working groups, lots of discussions between our many sector bodies – but what has actually happened? With public trust now lower than it has ever been, whatever has happened has not been hugely effective.  

The sector can be painfully slow and bureaucratic. Senior Management Team meetings with 50 pages of papers, meetings to plan meetings, papers on how to write papers, papers that go through four committees, strategic plan development processes that can take a year. This will be familiar to many in the sector I am sure. And this all takes time and money that could – and should – be being spent on better things.  

I think the sector needs to be much stronger at self-regulation – we should criticise bad practice when it is letting down the sector, make it clear that bad fundraising practice won’t be tolerated and shine a light on poor governance.  

Personally I’d welcome a stronger Charity Commission with greater regulation authority and more resources. I’d also welcome our own equivalent of the CBI – standing up for the sector, promoting the sector to the public, influencing for us… and being highly critical of bad practice.  

We need to be bolder at doing things differently. Embrace digital transformation in everything we do, embrace new financial instruments such as social investment and be ruthlessly clear what our mission is and what our impact is. We should embrace greater scrutiny and be more transparent. Of course we will all make mistakes, but that’s fine if we’re open about it, learn from them and improve.  

The charity sector has achieved incredible things for many years. But too many organisations seem to be more into self-preservation than serving their beneficiaries and driving change to make a difference.  All of our organisations need to change, all of the time. It has to be a constant.  

The sector overall needs to do so more than ever. If we do, we can look forward to an exciting and influential future. But if bad practice, defensive reactions to criticism and an inability to change continues then public confidence will drop further, public support will decline and our ambitions of making the world a better place will be over.

Richard Hawkes will be delivering the closing keynote speech at the NPC Ignites conference on 12th October. For more information, click here.

Photo credit: R/DV/RS