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November 28, 2018

Grow to irrelevance

Schumacher is generally credited with the ‘small is beautiful’ credo but his ideas were shaped when studying under the political scientist, Leopold Kohr.  Khor protested all his life against the "cult of bigness" and promoted the concept of human scale. If an organisation was in trouble it was usually because it was too big. The recently published findings of the Civil Society Futures Inquiry look to have drawn heavily on the ideas of Kohr and Schumacher. The report sends a warning to those charities that have gone for growth that they run the risk of becoming irrelevant.


Patrick Butler

Charities risk becoming irrelevant, warns new report

Health Connections Mendip (HCM) never set out to be a model for anything. However, this deceptively simple project in the small Somerset town of Frome is being talked about, not just as a blueprint for community revitalisation, but as a road to renewal for a UK charity sector struggling to maintain its relevance and public confidence in an age of great social upheaval and public distrust.

The work of HCM, based in a GP practice, has attracted attention mainly because of a startling research study which suggests that when people with health conditions are supported by community groups and volunteers, both they and the NHS benefit. The findings are provisional, but they show that over the three years of the study, while emergency hospital admissions in Somerset rose by 29%, in Frome they fell by 17%.

What’s striking is that there is no miracle element to what it does: no “innovation” or genius technology, no vast capital investment. There is no business plan, and no targets, no outcome measures, no big marketing pushes. HCM, an NHS body, employs a small team of community development workers and a small army of volunteer “connectors” to forge links between people who need help and those who can support them.

There is no magic, according to Jenny Hartnoll, the service lead at HCM. The energy, expertise and goodwill is already out there in the community. It brings people together; for example, through self-help groups for people with conditions like dementia and multiple sclerosis, by running “talking cafes”, or assisting people to find dog walking to debt advice. “We are often just a catalyst, the neural pathway of the community,” says Hartnoll.

The research study suggests a measurable impact. But Jenny Hartnoll, the service lead at HCM, argues that the benefits intrinsic to making social connections are just as powerful: creating friendships, reducing social isolation, building self-confidence and helping people to exert control over their lives. Social contact, it seems, makes people happier, healthier and more resilient.

Julia Unwin, chair of the independent Civil Society Futures inquiry, published this week, believes HCM’s approach should inspire the voluntary sector. The inquiry argues that, at a time of enormous upheaval, from Brexit to #MeToo, charities have not always responded well to the social changes. Too often they are regarded by a sceptical public as disconnected both from local communities and the people they exist to serve.

Parents and activists linked by social media won justice for Connor Sparrowhawk, transforming the discussion about NHS neglect of people with learning disabilities. Photograph: JusticeforLB/PA

They have prioritised corporate expansion, becoming centralised and brand-obsessed. Some have become service providers, chasing – and in some cases becoming financially dependent on – contracts from local and central government. Getting too close to the state risks compromising charities’ advocacy role – not least where there are contract gagging clauses, says Unwin. Some organisations have lost sight of their overriding mission to fight for people in need. “If you sign a contract [to provide a state-funded service] that stops you speaking out, you are probably in breach of your charitable purpose,” she says. Unwin will not name names but some big charities, she says, are “losing the plot”.

The clever ones, according to her, are reconnecting with grassroots networks. She was struck, during hundreds of meetings and conversations over the two years of the inquiry, how many charities urged her to use it to make new demands of the government. Her conclusion is that this is the wrong way to look. The real campaigning energy is in communities – both in actual places and online – and that, not Westminster, is where change happens and mission, trust and legitimacy can be renewed.

Brexit was not a shock to neighbourhood community groups in Hartlepool or Hull, she points out. Local tenants groups highlighted the risks of dodgy cladding and landlord neglect long before Grenfell Tower went up in flames. Small refugee charities fought the injustices of the Home Office’s hostile environment for years before it became the Windrush scandal. A small group of parents and activists linked by social media, not a national charity, she says, won justice for Connor Sparrowhawk, and in doing so transformed the discussion about NHS neglect of people with learning disabilities. “The big challenge to charities is not whether they become more corporate or not, but whether they stay relevant,” Unwin says.

The government recently published its own civil society strategy, which, Unwin says, is welcome but rather depends on how far Whitehall is going to devolve real power, as opposed to simply talking about it. One of the many problems of the strategy’s forerunner, David Cameron’s ill-fated “big society”, launched in 2010, was the way it cast established civil society groups as effective agents of top-down government-directed policies, while at the same time shredding the local funding available to them.

The inquiry concludes that if civil society is to respond to the massive social challenges of the next decades it must learn to devolve and share power and control, earning public trust by “speaking up to politicians and corporations”. Accountability should be refocused on the people that charities serve rather than putting the government and funders first. “Too often in civil society, size, turnover and short-term measures of impact are seen as the best measures of success. But we have heard loud and clear that real, long-lasting success comes from the depth and breadth of connections with people and communities, and the opportunity for everyone to have power,” the inquiry concludes.

Shelter, the housing charity, has already unveiled plans to switch the focus of its efforts to local level, and to sharpen its campaigning edge. Its new 10-year strategy seeks to reconnect with its founding purposes, which were grounded in community activism: fighting exploitative landlords, helping people resist eviction and speaking up for the voiceless. The aim is to create a national movement using the energy of hundreds of local activists and supporters.

Shelter’s chief executive, Polly Neate, says many big charities – including her own – have become too disconnected from reality, and too centralised and self-limiting in their ambition. “We’ve all talked so much about the ‘housing crisis’ that we’ve stopped believing it can be solved. The phrase has become like wallpaper,” says the strategy. “But this is a national emergency, and one that demands fearless, ambitious action.”

Shelter will hire more community organisers, working out of its regional hubs (there are 12 in England and four in Scotland) and extensive shop network. Their job will be to help defend the right to a home and assist individuals in housing crisis. They will work with and for local people, sharing expertise and resources, and helping them campaign on local issues.

“There’s a growing sense in the voluntary sector that the obsession with Westminster and Whitehall, and a corporate approach to scale and brand, is not driving the changes we need,” says Neate. “We can’t do it any more, because it is not working.”