In December 2018 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its annual report which examines the nature and scale of UK poverty: the results of which painted a now sadly familiar picture. One in five of the UK population live in poverty — and what is even more alarming is the fact that the number of workers living in poverty now sits at four million, an increase of half a million over just a five-year period.
All you have to do is carry out a little probability analysis, and you will promptly arrive at a conclusion that some of our staff and/or volunteers are included in these poverty statistics. That is a sobering thought.
This had me reflecting on the role of civil society — how a shift is needed and how greater emphasis may need to be placed on preventing rather than resolving problems. How would that work though, when so many civil society organisations are already stretched to the limit? It can be argued that navigating the tricky balancing act of trying to reach as many as possible and maximise the breadth of impact, while at the same time trying to maintain enough depth to ensure that a real lasting difference is made, is enough of a challenge as it is.
But what if we revolutionise the way that we operate?
What if we turn the whole system on its head? Rather than seeing ourselves as having one set of beneficiaries, what if we maintain our current beneficiaries as our primary focus, while also taking into account the beneficiaries of other organisations as our secondary focus? Now, on the face of it, it may appear as if this strategy would only create more work and take away valuable time and resources that could be spent on our objectives. Yet this is the only way that we can simultaneously solve and prevent problems. If we focus solely on our beneficiaries and fail to take into account other stakeholder groups, we effectively end up creating beneficiaries for each other and unintentionally end up setting one another back.
An organisation that fails to address issues of workplace bullying, for example, may be helping to advance its own cause but it may also create beneficiaries for mental health charities. Likewise, an organisation that fails to address issues of diversity and inclusion may advance its own cause while also setting back equality campaigners. This can be described as a perpetual “cycle of need”.
Then there is the fact that our beneficiaries are far more interlinked than we sometimes realise. Global warming may seem like a problem solely for environmental charities to address, and recycling may be low on the priority list, especially given that the result is just early spring and warmer summers. Unknowing though that on the other side of the Equator, the effects of climate change currently manifest themselves in the form of prolonged droughts in East Africa, resulting in severe food crises and creating millions of beneficiaries for aid organisations.
Our worlds are so tightly interwoven that we must think broad. None of us will ever make a lasting difference, so long as other organisations consistently increase the number of our beneficiaries/service users. The only way we can make truly transformative change and maximise our total impact is if we resolve to work together and pull in one direction.
Is fixing the world solely the job of civil society then? No, it is not. However, as values-based organisations, we must certainly lead the way.
We can’t just talk about it, we must act
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present this very opportunity for civil society to work in unison with set goals in mind — and we recently published a report that looked into practical ways that voluntary organisations can engage with the goals.
In summary, voluntary organisations can engage with the goals directly as facilitators working closely with the government, or indirectly by effectively breaking the cycle of need, as previously noted. We’re encouraging organisations to consider People, Impact and Planet (PIP) collectively. It’s no small task; however, we can certainly rise to the challenge.
Starting in March and throughout 2019, Social Practice will be providing free resources to help charities familiarise themselves with the goals and what we can accomplish together. Then, on 1 January 2020, we’ll be encouraging organisations to set a 10-year vision outlining what structural changes they hope to make by 2030. In other words, we’re looking to start a civil society revolution, but we can’t do it without you.
So please do follow #pip on social media, and get involved in upcoming debates.