Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Five problems I have with Dan Palotta’s TED talk

The non-profit world seems to have been buzzing lately at the TED talk by Dan Palotta, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. It’s easy to see why. Dan puts forward some compelling arguments that the cultural attitudes which view ‘admin costs’ (or overheads as he terms them) as a bad thing rather than as an essential part of a charity’s work. I particularly like Dan’s observations about confusing morality with frugality and his quote, “When you prohibit failure you prevent innovation”.

Of course, Dan’s arguments are nothing new. I can recall hearing fundraising expert Prof. Stephen Lee speak on this very topic years ago. He argued that when people object to, for example, 10% admin costs, fundraisers should respond by saying something like, “Thank you for your donation of £100. We spent £90 helping our clients and are using the other £10 to help raise another £100”.

For all that’s good about Dan’s talk - and it really is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it yet - I have five problems with it.

First, he seems to assume for-profit is bad and non-profit is good. His examples illustrate a mindset that private business is out to make things worse for people whilst non-profits are out to make things better. Of course, he isn’t entirely wrong - there are some truly appalling companies. But the truth is that there are for-profit businesses that genuinely want to make the world a better place (and make some money in the process) just as there are some non-profits who, sadly, exist to benefit the few at the exclusion of the many. In a world of grey, Dan’s assumption of black and white absolutes is flawed.

Second (and related), Dan seems to work from a basis that there are clear delineations between for profit and non-profit. Perhaps that comes from a differing cultural start point - he is American and looks at the issues in a USA context, hence the lack of reference to a public sector - but surely the boundaries are increasingly blurred. Take Dan’s own start point of social entrepreneurship as a case in point, a concept that sees private and voluntary sectors blurring together in different ways from old concepts of them being distinct and separate.

Third, Dan seems to assume that non-profits are driven to change the world, addressing the root causes of the problems their beneficiaries face rather than just treating the symptoms. But is that really the case? For some organisations the answer is a resounding yes. For many though, I’m not so sure. 

If you genuinely want to solve the problems of the world - or at least a group of individuals - then your fundamental belief has to be that your purpose it ultimately put yourself out of business. Why? Because your non-profit will no longer be needed when the problem is solved. 

When NSPCC sought to do this via their Full Stop campaign (seeking to end child cruelty) they were criticised by some for being naive in assuming that such a goal could ever be achieved. 

We also seem to have a worryingly prevalent mindset in some corners of the sector that charities exist to give people paid employment. Losing a job is a painful process - I know, I’ve been there - but if it is so the vulnerable can be better served then objections indicate that we actually believe that sector jobs are more important than the people we are employed to support?

Fourth, Dan seems to imply that large organisations are good. His argument is that whilst non-profits are hampered from growing so they are being limited in what they can achieve.  In other words, the bigger a charity is the more it can do to change lives. This may be true sometimes, but where is the evidence? Some large non-profits are incredibly wasteful, inefficient, unresponsive behemoths out of touch with the beneficiaries. And some aren’t. Big does not automatically mean better.

Finally, Dan speaks as if the only resources that can be deployed to solve social problems are those that can be bought. In keeping with the general trend in the narrative about the UK voluntary sector, he keeps talking about money raised as if it is the only way to resource the work of non-profits. This simply isn’t true. Such a belief misses out on the incredible riches of volunteering. 

The vast majority of the UK voluntary sector is led, driven and run by volunteers, not paid staff. Only a comparably small number of charities employ people but, because of their size, the have a disproportionately loud voice so they are the ones we hear about. Failing to acknowledge the contribution of volunteers to good causes is to ignore perhaps the most precious and valuable asset any non-profit has. This is the key missing ingredient in Dan’s otherwise helpful talk.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

“We’re doomed, doomed I tell you!"

Private Frazer of legendary British TV show Dad’s Army is famed for this catchphrase and its been in my mind a fair bit of late as I’ve reflected on recent events in the English world of volunteering.

Many years ago when the Association of Volunteer Administrators closed down in the USA I can recall colleagues despairing at the loss of knowledge and expertise from the sector. Especially worrying was a loss of any sense of history, of what had been done before, of what had worked and not worked. As a result so called ‘new’ initiatives have sprung up across the pond that aren’t new at all, just old ideas repackaged in fancy jargon and without any heeding of lessons learnt before.

That all happened at a time when the work being done on volunteering in England was being heralded by some as world leading. In particular Volunteering England (VE) was singled out for its bravery and foresight in coming into being (it was previously four separate agencies prior to 2004) and for its work to modernise local volunteering infrastructure.

Sadly I now think we are in the same boat our American friends found themselves in a few years ago. In fact, I think we may be worse off because those who can remember the recent volunteering history in England are alarmingly quiet in speaking up in the face of some of what is going on.

Let me give you some examples.

At an event I recently attended panelists challenged an audience of volunteer managers - including some of the most experienced and respected people in our field - with some pretty bold statements, suggesting that the volunteering movement hadn’t done much to influence the delivery and legacy of the London 2012 volunteer programme & wasn’t well organised in lobbying government. This was supported by a lady from The Office of Civil Society (OCS) who said it wasn’t government’s role to go out and consult with the sector, we had to engage with them.

At face value these may seem like fair challenges. Yet VE led work with a number of partners to help produce the LOCOG volunteering strategy for the 2012 Games, work that started before the UK was even awarded the games back in 2005. When LOCOG opted to focus solely on games-time delivery and not legacy, VE led the work to bring together a range of stakeholders to focus on the volunteering legacy.

Similarly, VE spent the eight years of its existence lobbying and working with government on a range of policy proposals, initiative and developments all on behalf of the sector. Much of that work was behind the scenes rather than in-your-face campaigning and it resulted in many successes, including the retention of volunteering as a key strand of the now defunct ChangeUp programme (when many organisations had lobbied hard for volunteering to get dropped from that key modernisation programme) and securing funding for the Volunteer Management Programme which Capacitybuilders ran for two years prior to the last general election.

For its trouble VE had its funding slashed with no regard to its contributions or its efforts to reduce duplication and increase the effectiveness of the volunteering infrastructure by coming into being through the 2004 merger. The coalition government treated VE the same way as many other infrastructure bodies who actively resisted change - other than when it benefitted them financially - and who now hail the very change they fought so long to prevent, even though it is now driven by necessity rather than purpose. 

But the panel of experts didn’t know this. Nice people though they were they seemed ignorant of anything that had happened in the past around volunteering, any lessons learnt or insights gained. No, they were mainly the kind of people who use bewildering jargon and lots of words but say little of substance. In short, they are exactly the kind of people OCS seem to want to hear from, not those with any real knowledge or experience. Maybe that’s why OCS took away the sector’s voice on volunteering when they effectively axed VE back in 2011. 

[Sorry lady from the OCS but we can’t go and engage with you if you cut of our main means to do so].

At the same event, a senior manager from a well known volunteering organisation suggested that a group of agencies and individuals should come together to define what exactly we mean by volunteering in order to be clear where the sector stands in regard to various initiatives (mainly government driven) that seek to stretch the definitions of volunteering.

Again, a sound suggestion on one level. Except this work was done extensively by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering who reported in 2008 and specifically addressed this very issue in the opening pages of their report. 

I admit that during this event I was totally shocked and I take full responsibility for not saying anything myself. I was angry. I was frustrated. I fear that had I said anything there and then it would have come out as at worst vitriol, at best the frustrated ravings of an ex-VE employee and most definitely not as a constructive contribution. 

However, far more concerning was that a senior member of VE staff in the room said nothing. No challenge. No defence of the organisation’s track record. Just silence.

And this isn’t an isolated example.

After the work of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, its chair, Baroness Neuberger, went on to conduct and publish a review of volunteering health and social care for the last government. Just last month the Kings Fund - under Department of Health funding - published a report that seems to duplicate this work.  What did VE say? Nothing.

Then there is the recent announcement by the Mayor of London’s office that Team London are launching a website next month to match volunteers with opportunities. Unsurprising given innovation in volunteering these days seems to be code for “let’s build another website”. What did VE say about this flagrant duplication of existing infrastructure? Nothing.

So what can we learn from all this? What can we do to avoid the situation getting worse?

In regard to ourselves as leaders and managers of volunteers, I think we need to ensure that individually we know the history of our field and of the volunteering movement. We need to take time to learn this history as well as the nuts and bolts of our day jobs. We need to take responsibility to educate ourselves and each other. We need to hold others - government, VE / NCVO etc. - to account when they ignore or dismiss this history to the detriment of volunteering. We need to learn from the history and apply it to change the way we do our jobs, creating real innovation and change, not the emperors new clothes.

I also think we need to use this knowledge wisely. I think a big danger is that we can come across as thinking we know all the answers because we know some context and history. We can come across as closed minded to new ideas. Yet the reality is that few organisations have done anything to change the way they approach volunteering despite all this knowledge and experience. That leads outsiders - including government - to dismiss what went before as irrelevant and to focus on ‘new’ initiatives that aren’t that new after all.

Finally, I think we need to see some action from VE / NCVO. I accept they are still going through the final stages of post-merger change and that this is a painful process. But right now, probably more than ever, we need a national body to be standing up for volunteering. Freed from what some may perceive as the shackles of government funding we need VE / NCVO to be standing up for real change, real innovation. We need the likes of Justin Davis Smith (perhaps the most knowledgable person on volunteering in this country) to be saying “hang on a minute, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here” not staying silent as VE’s legacy is challenged and re-written by those who weren’t there or who have their own agendas for belittling VE’s contribution.

Of course I will do what I can with what influence I have, as will others. But at the end of the day we need a strong body like VE / NCVO who have the resources and political clout to speak up. The truth is the knowledge and history of volunteering in England are still there, just muted for some reason. They need to find their voice - we all do - or Private Frazer may be right and, whilst volunteering will inevitably continue, the volunteering movement that many have worked so hard to build in this country for so many years may well be doomed.