Katie Turner, Deputy Head of Research at IVAR writes about the social change role of small charities in this blog originally posted on the IVAR website
We recently hosted a conversation for small charities with those who fund and support them, to explore their social change role over the next 12-18 months. This was partly to build on our recent publication of Small charities and social change, a study which describes the approaches of 11 small charities to advocacy; and partly because through our work in response to Covid-19, we’re hearing a lot about the need to strengthen the sector’s collective voice: ‘We have to have some real conversations. We’re lots of voices, collective voices, but we’re being drowned out with all the noise’.
The pandemic has presented many and varied challenges for small charities – and uncertainty is now part of the new normal. Alongside this, we have all been affected by the events that followed the killing of George Floyd – the protests, the debates, the anger, the pain, the calls to action. Profound questions are being asked about diversity, equality and inclusion – these need to be front of mind as we turn our attention to the process of recovery and renewal out of the crisis that we have been living through.
We were privileged to hear from four people with different experiences of social change: Raheel Mohammad, Director of Maslaha; Christopher Stacey, Co-Director of Unlock; Debbie Pippard, Director of Programmes at Barrow Cadbury Trust; and George Barrow, Civil Servant at The Ministry of Justice.
Seven things stood out from their reflections and the discussions that followed:
- ‘Covid-19 has pulled back the curtain and demonstrated the number of people that have been marginalised’ by previously unfair and closed decision-making processes. Small and medium charities undertaking social change work have to look at ways in which they can link up with other groups who are led by and/or represent individuals and groups whose voices and experiences are going unheard.
- ‘Majority white-led organisations do not have the specialist knowledge or expertise to understand how certain social issues affect communities of colour.’ Work to unpack and respond to the experiences of communities of colour must be led by or run in partnership with them so that it ‘registers emotion, vulnerability, heritage, culture and religion’. If this social change work is being carried out ‘through partnerships between black and brown-led and white-led and organisations’, it is most effective when based around something tangible: ‘it’s in the action that you open up new parameters and new horizons’.
- Ensure that you are actively and demonstratively accountable to the individuals, groups and communities you are advocating on behalf of. We must avoid being the creators or perpetuators of ‘artificial examples of good practice’, only putting forward solutions for policy and practice that are based on the genuine experience and voice of those you represent Always ask yourself: ‘Do you know what good looks like?’ for a particular group or community.
- Collaboration is essential, particularly between large and small charities. Larger charities are often more likely to have a seat at the table and have their voices heard, and they have the time and capacity to engage in decision making processes. But small charities tend to have the proximity to lived experience and in-depth knowledge of how policy and practice plays out on the ground.
- We must continue to work both inside and outside of the system. For example, building relationships with local and national government, but also being willing to mobilise and challenge where necessary. Recognise that it’s about understanding what is the most appropriate and effective strategy for the change you are seeking to influence at a given point in time.
- When attempting to influence central government policy or legislation, there are three things it is useful to keep in mind. First, develop personal relationships with key civil servants, or work in partnership with an organisation who can build or has these relationships. Second, work together in loose networks: ‘If you’re all on the same page we do get the message’. Third, understand that government moves slowly, so being able to commit and be in it for the long term is important. Small charities also have a very important role to play in being able to bring the ‘corporate memory’ on certain social policy issues and previously tried and tested solutions.
- More funders need to commit to funding social change work and understand what it takes to fund this kind of work. Be willing to fund over an extended period of time, stick with social change processes for the long term, and allow those doing social change work the freedom and opportunism to act in a responsive and adaptive way. More work may need to be done with trustees of trusts and foundations to help them to understand the importance of investing in social change work alongside service delivery.
You can read more about how and why small charities are challenging, shaping and changing policy, practice and attitudes here.