Keeping civil society’s butterfly wings flapping

By Dr. Javed Khan OBE, Former CEO, Barnardo’s, Victim Support

Having led two national charities over 11 years, Victim Support and then Barnardo’s, I’m acutely aware of the privilege that these cherished roles carry. Such leaders have enormous influence – through what they think, what they say, and what they try and do in their organisations.

I’m a mathematician by training. One of the things we were taught was ‘chaos theory’. You can read much on this theory but there’s a very simple way of explaining it: if there were enough butterflies in Brazil, flapping their wings at the same time, it would change the weather in Belfast. But each butterfly would not know that other butterflies are flapping their wings at the same time. The message here is that individuals may think their own actions are insignificant, and not going to change anything because the problem they’re taking on is so vast. But they don’t know that there are other good people who are thinking the same thing at the same time, and doing something about it. Together, they will make the difference. Those working or volunteering in charities live as butterflies, day in day out.

As the Commission’s report highlights, charities face great challenges but they also have great advantages which need to be understood and celebrated. There is a business case for ensuring charities remain part and parcel of our community fabric, and it is not just a charitable one. Charities provide the ‘glue’ that holds communities together at their most difficult times. Imagine how much more difficult Covid could have been had there not been thousands of charities up and down our country helping millions of vulnerable people get through. But our charities remain under funded, under resourced and sometimes under appreciated.

And yet charities are closer to the point of need than most public service providers. Charities have their finger on the pulse of communities. They are more trusted by local people than the other providers of services could ever dream of. They are more efficient: their ‘value add’ for every pound they spend is unparalleled. And they have greater impact on life chances, especially those of the most vulnerable people in society.

Our charities also have another great strength: their ability to reach communities and people that would otherwise be left wanting. This is far more than the traditional ‘outreach’ work that we are all accustomed to. The best charities ‘reach in’ to communities, supporting local people to do local work, built on local knowledge, experience, skills and most importantly trust. Committing to work in this way makes the proverbial ‘hard to reach’ become very reachable.

But charities have got some work to do too.

In understanding the charity sector, we should remember that most of these organisations began as social movements. Somebody spotted a big issue of the day and wanted to do something about it. They got together philanthropists and supporters of different sorts, to try and put some money in and make something happen. That’s certainly the history of the charities I’ve led.

Most large charities have been around a very long time and they’ve got ways of doing things which work, so why should they change? What are the drivers for changing? Because if they’ve got the donors, they know how to deliver well within budget, and they’re reaching beneficiaries in ways that they want to reach them, why would they need any help from anyone else?

The answer lies on how fast changing the world around us now is. It demands that charity leaders change with it, to best support and represent the people that they support, stand up for, and help give a voice to. This means charity leaders have got to be brave and bold. And that’s easier said than done in the extremely charged environment around us. But if leaders are too risk averse, we can be sure that nothing will change.

The larger national charities have historically worked independently, but they are increasingly realising that this must change if they are to reach more beneficiaries more quicker. And to help, we need funders to stop pitting charities against each other, getting each other to fight for the scraps, and move to incentivising strategic alliances where charities work together to influence thinking, planning and delivery.

We also need to see civil society organisations go beyond traditional partnerships and collaboration, and move to ‘interdependence’ instead. Why? Well with interdependence, all partners recognise that their existence and the ability to deliver relies as much on other partners as it does on themselves, and all partner realise they need to understand how each other’s shoes pinch. As we move forward in this way, I think new models of charities will appear, with changes to their set up driven by younger people who will connect with communities in ways that we haven’t discovered yet.

Another challenge the charity sector faces is that it has historically been a bit ‘fluffy’ about identifying the difference it makes. It can reel off anecdotes that can bring tears to your eyes but that alone is no longer enough. Charities need to be more strategic and analytical about how they use data to measure their impact. Other sectors are much better at that.

That’s not to say the lessons only go one way. There’s a thing or two charities can share too. In most organisations, most of the time, you can sit in a leadership position, press a button and at some point down the chain someone’s going to do something because of the button you pressed. That doesn’t apply to the charity sector. There it is all about hearts and minds, whether for employees, volunteers or donors. Get that wrong and they can vote with their feet very quickly. Charity leaders therefore need to be experts in that HR department holy grail ‘inspirational leadership’. The way they get there is less about delivering Henry V-esque speeches and more about demonstrating another business buzzword, ‘authenticity’. If you’re not authentic you will get sniffed out a mile away!

To respond to the challenges charities face, diversity is going to be critical. That’s diversity in our people, our thinking, our practice and how the sector will be led and driven. The world we live in is increasingly diverse and that pace of change is increasing rapidly. And this isn’t just about black, brown and white faces. It is the more subtle cultural nuances that exist in our communities which over time will make it much more difficult to pigeonhole people into traditional identities – the conventional driver for diversity. How will the charity sector respond to that when its workforce is by and large still pretty monocultural, middle class and largely female?

So, leading diversity is going to be an essential leadership skill in the future, as demographic shifts across Britain create a wider mix of cultural backgrounds in the workplace. We’ve seen IQ and EQ. There is a third ‘Q’ here now, CQ – cultural intelligence. Can anyone hope to successfully lead an organisation in 2023 without being culturally competent, without really understanding the nuances that exist for people? You can be bright in every other sense, but if you’re not sharp in your cultural understanding you are likely to fail.

Cultural competence is far more than traditional diversity.  I could be Black, British, Pakistani, Kashmiri (all of which are true) and more, but have no understanding of diversity. Having black or brown skin doesn’t mean I’m any use at understanding that. So what’s the trick? Getting diversity and inclusion right – in charities or in business – starts with looking inwards. You’ve got to start with being conscious about your bias, challenge yourself as much as you challenge others. And that’s quite hard to do.

The Commission’s report sets out recommendations that can help us all on the journey to addressing these challenges and much more, and help make sure that the butterflies’ wings keep on flapping.