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Why make grants?

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the purpose of grant making, the role of endowed foundations and the relationship between what goes on in broader civil society and the organisations that support and fuel it. There have been critiques from the USA – from Anand Giridharadas   arguing that philanthropy is another tool for the powerful rich, from Edgar Villanueva  describing the damaging colonial underbelly of philanthropy, and from Robert Reich  questioning the impact of philanthropy on our democracy. Each of these critiques has been discussed in the UK, and while the criticisms don’t land as powerfully as they do in the USA, there has inevitably been some greater sense of self-reflection in the UK. But there would have been reflection anyway – people running foundations as staff or as trustees are reflective people, liable to consider what their place is in the world and what difference they can make. And as they survey our deeply divided society, the sense of desolation in so many parts of the UK, and the democratic crisis we face, it would be odd indeed if they were not thinking about how they can do what they do even better.

Over fifteen years  ago in the Grant Making Tango  I argued that anyone wanting to make a grant needed to decide if the purpose of the grant was to change  the world, build an organisation, or keep good stuff going. Not to know, I argued, risked disappointment at best, and massive waste at worst. Too many funders were paying for projects, and then being disappointed that the organisation wasn’t stronger and more effective. Or they were paying to strengthen organisations, and surprised that they hadn’t achieved the large-scale systems change that was then desired.

But preparing for another discussion this week about the role and purpose of foundations – those wonderfully privileged endowed organisations, withe independence hard wired, and the choice to set their own course – I thought rather differently about what foundations can do in these, very much more troubled and troubling times.

  • They can be stabilisers and stewards– supporting important organisations and groups in times of massive turbulence. They can protect knowledge, support the institutions and organisations with deep roots in communities and in our world. Just as  the medieval monasteries protected the illuminated manuscripts during the years of plague – so too we have organisations that need security and stability through troubled times.
  • They can be disrupters and agitators, making change happen, supporting the new and the challenging, avoiding the status quo, recognising the need for new and different ways of doing things. They can take risks, challenge the existing order, support the challengers against the incumbents.
  • They can be the reliable suppliers of money, support and help– keeping good things going, working with humility to support that which works and is good, valuing the deep connections that exist within civil society, and making sure that organisations across the country are able to thrive.

All three of these sets of purpose seem to me to be worthwhile, important and timely. Each of them has massive value at this difficult time in our country’s history. Each of them can be pursued by foundations – but I’m not really sure that anyone foundation can do all three. If I’m right there are choices to be made – and in difficult times, foundations know they need to make choices. That will help them – perhaps even more importantly it will help the bodies that rely on them to know what  it is that the grant maker wants to do.

 

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The Politics of Belonging – the Freedom to Belong

There’s a new report out today from Onward, the organisation which describes itself as a ‘new future-facing and campaigning thinktank with a mission to build a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders.’ With the catchy (but long) hashtag #PoliticsofBelonging, the report  The Politics of Belonging, is a data rich survey of attitudes and emotions how we live today. As I have argued that emotions are the blind spot in public policy  I fell on it with enthusiasm.

There’s lots to agree with in the findings. They chime precisely with what we heard in Civil Society Futures.In our own discussions with local people from different parts of the UK, they told us they had little control over their lives.  They felt distant  from others in their communities, and believed that their country was increasingly divided.

People also told us they felt they had not benefited from modernisation and globalisation, and that those who had, lived far away. People felt their own situation was deeply and worryingly precarious. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in their own work on modern poverty, found very similar responses about the extreme insecurity experienced by so many people.

Finally, all of this research shows that, above all, people really want to feel that they belong. This is as true of newly arrived Syrian refugees as it is for people with learning disabilities or those who have lived in a neighbourhood housing estate. All of them feel excluded and locked out of what society can offer.

They are not wrong in feeling like this. We are a deeply divided society, where the gains of modernity have certainly not been fairly distributed. There is huge tension between generations. Younger people feel angry that the benefits experienced by their parents and grand-parents are not available to them. And in turn the older generation fear the insecurity and uncertainty facing their children.

But in our Inquiry we also found hope and energy alongside the despair and anger. In every community we visited we saw people making their own solutions, supporting their neighbours, building bridges, creating a sense of belonging. Academics call it associational life – for many of the people we met ‘it’s just what you do’. From choirs to allotment societies and support circles; from residents’ associations to young people setting up their own enterprises, from Park Run to Refuges at Home, there were many examples of people contributing to the communities to which they belonged.

Churches and mosques, community run swimming pools, long established charities, and new movements and pressure groups all confirmed to us that people have a desperate, visceral human need to belong and will go to huge efforts to do so. From rural villages to inner city estates, across all ages, people demonstrated great loyalty and identification with place.  Our report celebrates the ability that civil society, in all its forms, has to bring people together.

But there was another element unearthed by our research. We found a strong desire for freedom and independence. People want the opportunity to build their own communities, in ways that work for them. They recognise that they know more about their ‘place’ than the chief executive in the town hall, let alone the man in Whitehall. We met people who wanted to devise solutions for their own problems, but prevented from doing so either by regulations, or more frequently the absence of even the smallest dollop of funding to help them get going. Many grassroots groups and organisations told us that their freedom to innovate, to engage, to really help instigate change, were being constrained by those holding power.

Civil society is about change as much as it is about conservation, and we also heard from groups actively pursuing the freedom that they strongly believe they need. The freedom from worry and crippling anxiety for parents with children addicted to drugs and alcohol. The freedom to manage their own housing estates, the freedom to worship and express their faith and their own sense of belonging.

We noted that for most people, and for men in particular, until about 15 years ago, their workplace was their strongest and most profound place of affiliation and belonging. Time and time again we were told that the changing labour market – not just the ‘gig economy’ but also the ways in which companies are rapidly forming and re-forming – meant that work provided less of a focus for belonging. Young people felt that their insecure housing meant they were unable to form the deep human connections that are so important to us all.

So, the diagnosis in Politics of Belonging held few surprises for me. Nor did some of the analysis about how people feel that they and the people and places they love benefit little from a fast-changing world which makes them uncomfortable and resentful.

Inequality and division has a tendency to have that effect.

But it was with  the final words of the report that I part company with the authors. In advice to political campaigners, (and this report speaks directly to the Conservative Party it concludes:

‘reject the freedom fighters and pursue the politics of belonging’.

A whole hearted embrace of belonging doesn’t contradict a desire for freedom and autonomy, in fact it can only enhance it. There’s only a contradiction if what we’re really talking about here is power.  I think it is. When people really belong – to a trades union, charity, community group or a campaign like Extinction Rebellion – they feel a tremendous sense of power. They also have the power to bridge across divides – divisions on grounds or race, ethnicity, faith divide and destroy. That’s why belonging matters. It allows people to set their own course. And with that power comes freedom and autonomy. To separate the two runs contrary to our most profound human impulses.

Any party that wants to achieve power has to address people’s deep sense of insecurity. It has to recognise the vital importance of belonging. And it has to recognise that it is only by strong, shared action – across all the divides that currently afflict us – that we will really achieve the true social change that is so important for our deeply uncertain future. Its only through a renewed and re energised civil societythat we’ll be able to really assert the importance of belonging, and the true value of our own very precious freedoms.

That will mean asking some deeply uncomfortable questions about who holds power, and how they use it. And it will mean recognising that we need a fundamental shift of power. That’s how the real Politics of Belonging works. It allows us to express solidarity with those who are excluded. It allows us to start to mend our dented democracy. It allows us to work together to stitch the frayed social fabric. It makes it possible for us to start making the essential, and increasingly urgent changes demanded by the climate emergency.

That’s what civil society does at is best, and that’s why I don’t think there is a contradiction between demanding freedom, craving belonging, and resisting insecurity.

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Bert Massie – A life without Limits.

When Sir Bert Massie – who was a member of the Civil Society Futures Panel – died in October 2017 I described him as a giant of the voluntary sector. Someone who had made an enormous contribution, always reminding us that we were about rights and resistance, just as much as we were about service and association.

Reading his recently published memoir – A Life Without Limits – reminded me yet again what an enormous lifelong contribution he made, and how very many of the rights we now enjoy had been gained in his enormously productive lifetime.

But his memoir reminded me of something else. It is how his extraordinary combination of passion, focus and attention to detail really can change the world.

Bert’s passion, that disabled people should live full active and equal lives, is evident in every page of this book. His personal determination to lead a full and active life sings out on every page. And so too does his passion to ensure that all disabled people – and indeed all people facing discrimination – should lead full lives.

But it was not just passion – there is a clarity of vision, a focus, and a certainty that changes in both policy and practice really can make a difference. A vision for a better, more equal world, based on personal experience and the experience of the people he grew up with and the very many people he worked with in his life. But a vison too that was collaborative and willing to make alliances. I’ll treasure forever his entertaining presentation to an early meeting of the Inquiry about the alliance forged between people using wheelchairs and mothers pushing prams that successfully pressurised successive ministers to demand better access on the railways.

Passion and vision are essential. What Bert also brought was a willingness to engage in the hard graft of good governance, of detailed policy making, of tireless briefing and engagement. Time and again he describes the processes of change, the need to work with others, and the common cause he created. Bert could fight battles, and could pick fights, but he could also make change happen, not posturing but arguing incisively, and creatively for the sort of change that really does remove the limits to lives.

I learned a lot from Bert and his work and will be forever grateful. But this memoir tells us all so much more about the way in which a Liverpudlian from a working class family, contracting policy as a baby, came to be such a giant in our sector, making changes that will be felt for generations to come. And reminding us all, all over again, that we should never take rights for granted. They need to be fought for time and time again.

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Voluntary trustees – are we paying a price for this principle?

Every few years a minor argument breaks out in civil society about whether or not we should allow trustees to be paid. Every few years, someone laments the fact that it’s hard to attract people to trustee roles and every few years someone else says that public trust is helped by voluntary trusteeship, that the voluntary principle is at the heart of who we are and that it would make no difference to the number and quality of trustees anyway. And at some stage we point smugly at the FTSE companies and the NHS trusts that do pay, and tell ourselves that they don’t have inclusive boards either.
And every few years after the row subsides again, I’m left feeling deeply uncomfortable. Partly because I know how hugely I have personally benefited from being a trustee. (I will always treasure the memory of a Very Important Person in the charity world portentously reminding me that no-one should ever benefit from their trust, while I reflect on the personal, professional and generally life enhancing benefits I have received from trusteeship).
But also because the voices of those saying that payment for trusteeship is wrong nearly always come from people who are already trustees. It’s a bit like those people who have already easily negotiated the rickety stairs and narrow doors of a meeting room describing the room as absolutely accessible. Those of us lucky enough to have salaried roles which allow time for trusteeship, or those who earn enough to enable them to give their time, need to be very cautious about advocating a model that may not always work for everyone.

I’m interested in hearing from someone on very insecure earnings, who loses pay every time she goes to a trustee meeting. And yes, advocating for time off (as NCVO does), is important, but it only seems to apply for those in secure, salaried work. I’m interested in hearing from the many people I have met who wanted to join a housing association board but knew that it might imperil their benefit payments because they were no longer deemed available for work. I’d like to hear from young people, scrabbling to piece together an income in really difficult times who would like to take on a role – and are so desperately needed by charity boards – but cannot risk the possibility that they thereby miss out on a shift or a freelance contract that takes them out of town.

I’m not comfortable with a debate that doesn’t ask the views of people who are currently not sitting round the trustee table.
Are we content for our trustee boards to be staffed by people who are either salaried, or on a final salary pension schemes or who otherwise have sufficient income to allow them to make what is in effect a substantial donation to their charity of choice? It’s also worth remembering that many of the same arguments were used to justify MPs not being paid, a stance which ensured that people were only represented by ‘men of means.’

Now I actually believe that on balance there are really strong – indeed compelling – arguments for keeping trusteeship voluntary. Theoretically, it allows trustees to demonstrate some necessary independence, knowing that their income is not on the line if they present a dissenting view. Non-payment of trustees is still a distinguishing feature of the sector, which recognises the voluntary impulse at the heart of voluntary action. It’s important that people who can afford to, can give back in this way. What is more, for the largest charities which don’t seem to have any challenge recruiting trustees, it’s simply not necessary. And of course the vast majority of charities are not paying anyone anyway. Some would also point out that payment of trustees is a poor use of charitable money, (although if you think good governance is central to the success of the charity it seems odd that this is the one thing we can’t justify paying.)
But we should recognise that all of this does come at a cost. It does restrict the pool of people who can afford to do it. And the price we pay as a sector may be having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be. That’s quite a price.

But if we are going to reaffirm, yet again, the voluntary principle, then there are things we ought to do much more seriously . We ought to be much more explicit and much less embarrassed about the benefits received from trusteeship. How about recognised professional accreditation? We ought to be much more open about payment for loss of earnings. (And I don’t mean barristers having their fees reimbursed. I do mean the barista having her wages replaced). We definitely ought to be arguing forcibly for time off, but in an increasingly freelance economy perhaps we ought to also be asking for tax relief on time given.
And perhaps we need to think more about the future pool of trustees. As the ‘job for life’ disappears, we cannot expect employers to continue to release people for trustee duties as part of their development programmes not because they can’t but because they won’t have the same investment. And as the last generation of recipients of final salary pension schemes hang up their trustee boots, and as demands on trustees get ever greater, are there new and better ways of making sure that a charity set up today will be able to recruit a diverse, knowledgeable, supportive group of people to steer the next generation of charities?
Just arguing that non-payment of trustees is a system that has served us well for the last century may not be the best possible answer for the next one.

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Homes, houses, units and incidents: the emotions in public policy

From a talk and conversation at Northern PlaceShapers, April 10th 2019

A large part of public policy is concerned with where people live: are there enough houses? Are we maintaining them well enough? Are they secure, affordable and decent? And whose living in them?

We know that housing matters enormously. It’s a huge source of the generational tension we face as a country. It should be an integral part of the infrastructure, enabling growth and mobility. It’s a political hot-button issue. And there’s no shortage of reports and policy recommendations about it. In fact, Housing Report Bingo is a parlour game in many circles, as report after report makes the crystal-clear case: we need more housing for everyone, the current arrangements are broken, there needs to be grater sustained investment. It’s obvious.

And yet we fail to cut through, either with government, or too often with the people who need housing, and those who live in our homes.

Is this another blind spot in public policy? Professionals and board members, ministers and regulators happily talk about supply, and units. We spend millions of pounds and in conferences, round tables and seminars we agonise about the differences between affordable and social and council and private housing. We know all about scheduled repairs, pipelines and managing demand, and we can even talk the language of allocation and support. We dabble happily in the KPIs and the league tables.

But nearly three years after a slogan called Bring Back Control changed the course of British history; we seem to be very poor at identifying why where we live matters so much. For all of us our home is the most precious thing we hold, and our emotions about home are only matched by the love we have for those who are most close to us. Home is the place of intimacy and warmth. It’s the place where our most precious inter actions take place. Its the place we raise our children. The place we go to when we need to feel safe. Its where we are ill and hope to die. It’s a place for times of vulnerability. It’s the place where our memories are born and where they grow. and Home provides our identity and our sense of who we are. Home provides nurture and security. It is in our homes that we most need control.

That’s why things going wrong in a home are so horrific. Its why domestic violence is rightly seen as the most hideous crime – the betrayal of the safety of home. Its why burglary can be so catastrophic and why its occasional dismissal as not really bad because it wasn’t violent, fails to recognise the violation it represents. Its why internal sewage flooding is such a tragedy and why floods and fire still touch our deepest emotions.

Home matters to us.

It’s not a coincidence that moving to a new house ranks up there on the scale of stress with bereavement and divorce.

It’s also why people get so angry when things go wrong. Its why the twitter messages to so many chief executives feel so aggressive. No wonder people are angry – that failing boiler, that damp patch, that botched repair is affecting them in their most important place. It’s not a late train, it’s not an incident or a scheduling issue – its damage to them in the place they need to feel most safe.

Its why people are so angry when their right of quiet enjoyment, so beautifully described in otherwise dull legislation, is threatened, as it so often is.
Public policy is beginning to talk about trauma: its time that housing policy thought about how it causes trauma.

Our home is what we own, regardless of housing tenure. Our home belongs to us in ways that resist metrics and legal title. Housing associations and local authorities may have housing on their balance sheets: but the homes they support are only held in trust for the community – for today’s generation and for ones not yet born.
And if this is true, shouldn’t public policy change too? What would housing policy look like if it recognised the central importance of a home to the people who live in it, and the lack of one to people who are homeless? What would housing management look like?

And perhaps far more importantly, what would our political discussion look like? That might really start a different conversation.

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Kindness and emotions – the public policy blind spot

In the last  two years I have been privileged to have a Fellowship with Carnegie UK Trust. This has allowed me to explore a long-held interest of one in kindness and emotional intelligence – and how  this fits into public policy.

This short blog, written for the publication date, was first  published on the Carnegie UK Trust website.

We all want to be kind and calls for kindness in public services are everywhere. Who wouldn’t want to be kind?

But we also want services to be fair. We want them to be accountable and run by professionals with a strong sense of boundaries. We want to scrutinise and understand decisions.

Public policy is about relationships and it is about emotions. It’s about how we love and how we care. It’s about where we live and where we feel we belong. It’s about how we change and grow. It’s always and at all times about emotions. And yet talking about emotions in public policy is embarrassing and uncomfortable.

That’s because kindness in public policy is a deeply disruptive concept. It recognises the emotions at the heart of what we do and gives them the status normally reserved for KPIs, risk registers and metrics of things that can be readily enumerated. Its difficult, and it challenges our deepest beliefs. But a recognition of the need for kindness is essential if we are to build trust, enable people to change their behaviour, and secure the outcomes that all the rest of the apparatus is designed to deliver.

Read the new report, Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy here.

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The canaries in society’s coal mine

This has been quite an extraordinary week in the UK, even in a couple of years that have had more than their fair shares of surprises and shocks. I’ve spent a lot of the last year going around the country listening to people interested in Civil Society Futures and the more I do that, the more I wonder at the surprise expressed by those frequently described as the “political class.”

Nobody who was deeply connected to the communities in Hartlepool and Hull was surprised by the Brexit vote. Those who were surprised were simply not paying attention. Everybody working closely with tenants at Grenfell Tower in Kensington and Chelsea knew about their frequently expressed  safety concerns. They were of course devastated by the scale of the tragedy but they were not surprised. From the treatment of the Windrush generation, to growing  gang violence, to the damaging implementation of Universal Credit – across the country voluntary and community groups, churches and charities,  knew what was happening. But time after time they were they were ignored.

Every system needs early warning. Every system needs to know when things are going badly wrong. Every system needs to know about deep and underlying discontent. In the UK it seems to me that civil society is the canary in our coal mine. Shocks and surprises happen because we are not listening to those repeated urgent warnings.

And a society that does not listen very acutely to warnings of things going wrong, is a society that will always be shocked and dealing with crisis.

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Confessions of a Framing Sceptic

When I first heard about framing I heard spin. I thought that it was all about identifying  the prejudice of the public and then pandering to it. I thought it was better suited to advertising and the dark arts of politics than the much more complex world of policy development and communication. I thought it was a way of putting a coat of shiny paint on the crumbling edifice of some of our services.

I was so very wrong.

I learned through early exposure to the framing thinking on issues as different as children’s nutrition, housing and poverty that framing is a technique that is genuinely disruptive, hugely challenging to those of us who think we know best, and is a way of rethinking and challenging the fundamentals of some of the rather weary positions that we are all so ready to recycle.

I learned five things that have changed the way I think about public policy, not just what I say.

  1. I’ve learned something I should have known all along :  how we feel about something is as important as what we know. That old campaigning question – do you know, think or feel?  – needs to be relearned. How we feel really matters and this is true of the people who view an issue from afar, those who are personally and intimately involved and those of us with a professional label.
  2. I’ve learned that everything is  always framed. The question is how it is framed. If you describe your services in terms of pity and distance, than that’s how it will be experienced. If you talk about housing in terms of desperation and  need, then you can’t be surprised if it becomes an emergency service. The question is framing it accurately in ways that are completely authentic.
  3. I’ve learned that if you talk in the way that makes you feel comfortable, you’re probably not listening. And not listening probably means that you’ll never be heard by anyone except people like you. And that reciting  data and research evidence in the way I have been trained, may be easy, but probably means that you’re not being heard.
  4. But I’ve also learned that it’s always about us, not about them. I’ve learned that when I think about  ageing I need to think about what I want as I age, that when I think about poverty I need to recognise that the existence of poverty affects us all, and that the things that matter to me – security, home, love, friendship – are almost certainly  the same things that matter to everyone else.
  5. And I’ve learned that when you talk so that people can hear you, extraordinary things happen. It’s not that’s magically public opinion shifts, but it is that the way in which we all think about an issue shifts, and that shifts what we do, as much as how we describe it.

Framing allows us to challenge our deepest pre conceptions, to understand the ‘received wisdom’ , to interrogate all of our own baggage and to start to do things differently. Mostly I’ve learned that framing isn’t about communications. It’s about everything we do. It’s not a silver bullet, but what it does is challenge professionals, systems and all of us who think we know the answer to think a lot more deeply, and then behave so much more intelligently.

first published for #socialcarefutures @neilmcrowther

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A Community Response to #metoo

 

Over the last decade our institutions and industries have been rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and harm. From the Church through the BBC  to Hollywood and to some of our most precious charities we have heard stories about behaviour that has no place in the 21st century. And we’ve heard about harm done, hurt experienced and the terrible work of both repairing the damage, and atoning for the grief caused.

Most of us have been challenged to think about our past behaviour – not just the abusers, but those of us who fear we may have been carelessly complicit. The averted eye, the nervousness about intervention, the embarrassment when we  knew things were not quite right. And all of us, whether accusers, survivors, perpetrators and institutions have known that there needs to be a better way. We need to find ways of being together  that enable fellowship and friendship but avoid causing such devastating sexual harm and degradation.

I believe this strongly. That’s why I’ve signed up to support #preventsexualharm. Supported by an impressive coalition of organisations including the NSCPCC, NCVO, NOTA, Crimestoppers and powered by Re-shape, this coalition challenges us to think about what we can do to prevent sexual harm in our communities, in our networks and our  organisations. .

This doesn’t feel easy or safe. But I do think it’s a really important way of taking back some control. And a chance for all of us to get the confidence to stop sexual harm – and that should mean that at the very least in ten years’ time we’re not looking back with embarrassment at things going on that we really should have been able to stop. After all, that certainly  doesn’t feel easy or safe .

The Future of Civil Society – the year one moment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about civil society and its future over the last year because of my role chairing the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society 

Yesterday we published a range of content  – all well worth looking at. The long report marshals the evidence, the animation stimulates thinking, the map shows where we’ve been and what we have done, and the report describes our thinking.

I have also written a couple of blogs. One, done for NPC was a personal view about the experience, what I have learned and what I am now thinking. And the other, on the Baring Foundation website, was speaking to funders, recognising that charitable foundations and grant makers are crucial if any change is to happen. And if you believe, as I increasingly do, that change is no longer optional,  then how funders respond is going to really matter. The challenges are too important for us to simply blame others : we need to take  shared collaborative responsibil for rising to the challenge.

All of us involved in the Inquiry know that we have learned great deal. We have listened attentively, and heard a lot. But for the rest of this year we need to identify how this change is going to happen – and to do that we need everyone who is interested in civil society to join us, and most importantly, start making the change now.