2018 – A year of change, challenge and charity?

Charities and other voluntary organisations operate, often exceptionally well, in extremely challenging economic circumstances. That said, securing sustainable revenue streams remains increasingly tough and the pressure increases daily to deliver essential services to the most vulnerable or disadvantaged people in our communities. 

Some people can have a patronising attitude toward charities. There’s a school of thought which seems to think: ‘Charities, bless them. They’re run by well-meaning folk, but they don’t really know what they’re doing’. For the most part, that simply is not the case. In Cheshire we are blessed with some outstanding, award-winning charities which are making a huge difference to their service users. Charities are often established by men and women who are directly or personally affected by really difficult conditions; physically, mentally or economically, and are unable to find the services they need to improve their lives. They are passionate about making a positive difference to others, and ensuring no-one else faces the same disadvantages.  Once founded a charity has all the challenges that any business will face: a business plan, HR issues, processes, marketing, finance, IT, health and safety and of course legal issues and regulatory compliance. Nobody ever entered the world of non-profit expecting to make a financial return. Of course a charity still needs to be financially accountable and generate a surplus in order to operate sustainably, but people who run charities are motivated by helping others, not by lining their own pockets. So it’s vital we all understand that motivation and support the people and organisations in our communities who are delivering critical services in areas such as mental health, disability services, health services, social isolation and services to the young, elderly or families.

Businesses on the other hand are driven by financial gain. They are established to make a profit, which in turn adds financial value to our economy. They provide jobs and generate wealth. Businesses have challenges and opportunities, just as any charity does, and have a range of skills and resources at their disposal. In recent years businesses have become more accountable to the local community and to the environment. Creating purpose beyond profit matters, not only to employees, suppliers and customers, but to the environment and our local communities. There is an increasing body of evidence which proves that socially responsible, or genuinely caring businesses are also more financially successful. I’m reminded of the thoughts of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, who was ahead of his time when it came to corporate social responsibility: “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” And when asked about what success meant to him he responded: “To do more for the world than the world does for you – that is success.”

So how can we accept difference and work together to build stronger communities

How do we face the economic challenges impacting us all and better connect and collaborate with each other, whatever our background, expertise, or needs, and work towards a better future? It may be worth starting by accepting that we all enter and leave this world the same way. The legacy we leave is determined by the life we lead in between those two points. We all have skills and experiences to offer and we all can benefit from the experiences and skills of others. Surely then, it’s a simple exercise to match the two; understand what’s needed, explore what’s on offer and match them? If only life were so simple. Recently I was explaining to a businessman what Cheshire Connect does; supports the aspirations of our local charities by finding relevant skills from the business community, offered for free. The great thing about our service, I explained to him, is that we facilitate genuine skills exchanges. The volunteer from the business community benefits from a valuable opportunity of working with one of our local charities, learning about the work they do, and learning new skills (team-building, problem solving, leadership skills). If there is one place to learn about passion, resilience, values-based leadership, teamwork, resourcefulness and compassion, it’s the charity sector! What’s more, over two thirds of business volunteers who have shared their skills through Cheshire Connect believe they are more fulfilled in their day job as a result of the volunteer experience. What a coup for the business which generously offered the volunteer time out of the office to share his or her skills effectively! Imagine my surprise when my businessman friend said that he really didn’t understand how anybody from the charity sector “could possibly teach him anything he didn’t already know”! Sometimes there is a perception that charities may be less able, or less valuable than businesses. Perhaps it’s because as a society we often focus on short-term financial growth and material gain as success is often measured by how much an individual owns as opposed to the difference he or she makes. As Nelson Mandela put it so perfectly: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Mutual respect, mutual gain

2018 promises to be a year of change and challenge. The government’s focus on Brexit, reducing the deficit and driving growth will see additional pressure on public finances and services. Charities who have in the past relied on government contracts may have to think differently. We are already seeing evidence of charities developing their own independent approaches to funding and walking away from public service contracts. In the long run this may be really good news for the future of our not-for-profit sector and the people it serves. As the recently published NCVO report: “The Road Ahead” comments: “The question we may be facing in 2018 is therefore: is this the year that the existing model of public services reaches its breaking point?”  Challenge and change are once again encouraging innovation, resilience and tenacity from the charity sector.

Let’s hope that 2018 also promises to be a year of much greater connectivity and mutual respect across all sectors of our society. It’s vital that businesses create wealth for our economy and that the not-for-profit sector continues to deliver essential services for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Of course charities must be run effectively and efficiently, but let’s remember that there is a clear difference between a profit-driven business and a charity driven by meeting the needs of its beneficiaries. It’s time for us all to accept differences and make the most of our strengths. We need to change the way we think about charities. As Dan Pallotta explains in his book  Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up For Itself and Really Change the World:  “And they are tired of being told to “act more like a business” by business people who refuse to allow them to use any of the real tools of business—adequate resources, to begin with.” 

By working together more effecively, sharing challenges, opportunities and resources, exchanging skills, we can build a stronger future for all. It seems such an obvious solution, doesn’t it?

Karen Staniland-Platt