Building Better Way organisations

London cell 4: 11th October 2017

The topic we discussed was how to build a Better Way organisation, following on from an earlier dinner on this topic by three other London cells.

We started by noting that we need to move away from notions of leadership  and see ourselves as change-makers, and this requires an ability to build relationships rather than issue directions.  It also means that we need to live with change around us, not treating organisations or our operating environments as static. 

Those of us who are paid to work in social sector organisations are mainly from well-off backgrounds and we rely on these organisations for our income and prosperity.  There is therefore pressure on leaders of organisations to maintain the status quo, to protect staff, allow us to pay our mortgages, ultimately to prevent us becoming ‘beneficiaries’.  We are running essentially conservative organisations designed to keep things as they are, not to generate change.

We practice open recruitment for posts, but we know that this is not producing more diverse organisations, and inclusion and equality of opportunity is more talked about than practised.

We constantly promote deficit thinking – and we cannot just blame this on funders.

In many social sector organisations it is difficult to get people to talk about wider purpose and politics.  We have ‘professionalised’ our staff teams, creating distinct roles, producing silos within our organisations, with a narrowness of function and outlook.

Cambridge House recognised these problems.  It took various steps, including recruiting staff for 12 months only from St Giles Trust (ex-offenders).  It created opportunities in the working day for staff to come together to have tea and cake and conversation. It closed down pro-bono relationships with corporates which were not adding value.  It developed new strands of work, which required different ways of working, for example a Safer Renting initiative, supporting vulnerable tenants who are victimised by criminal landlords or negatively affected by enforcement action. 

Sometimes such actions encounter opposition from staff and managers who want to keep things as they were.  Change is difficult for everyone, but sometimes we need to remind our teams that the people they are there to help are having a much worse time.  And we must overcome a ‘them and us’ mentality.  A good question to ask – would you invite a service user to supper? 

Galvanising action through fear is not the best means of achieving longer term change. In organisations which are driven by the need to protect their own institutional interests it can be particularly difficult, especially for staff at more junior levels, to make a stand against poor service practice, or against a target culture which is failing service users.

Organisations operate at different layers – the senior level holds the relationship with funders and commissioners, playing the game to keep things going, and this is kept entirely separate from accountability to communities.  As in a trifle, the custard never permeates the jelly!  The more layers of management there are between decision makers and the community the more it is difficult to ‘walk the talk’. 

Many celebrated organisations are too dependent on a visionary, charismatic leader. When Wonsoon Park, founder of the Hope Institute in South Korea, was elected Mayor of Seoul and left the organisation, it lost its innovative edge. In contrast the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) seeks to operate as a network organisation, with a very horizontal structure.  At the same time it is attempting to operate an ‘anti-consultancy’ model, not making false claims of expertise, but rather building networks to connect innovators, for example creating a ‘social innovation community’ across Europe. But this is never easy and it needs to present itself in more traditional ways in order to win funding bids.

We recognise that we need to operate in the ‘real world’, that we must not retreat into a virtuous and self- congratulatory comfort zone.  All organisations we create for social change are bound to be imperfect.  We need to make constant complex adjustments and should not unfairly malign others, eg local authorities, who face equivalent problems. Nor should we categorically dismiss the private sector: there are some socially driven organisations which use private sector company structures because they allow for more operating flexibility than charity or other social models.

Having said that, we also need to recognise when an organisation becomes part of the problem. Some form of organisation is always necessary, but once something exists its inevitable tendency is to maintain itself at all costs. We should therefore encourage people to use existing organisations rather than setting up new ones. 

We also need to get better at brokerage, providing platforms and connections through which people can come together, experience a sense of belonging, and from which many useful activities can emerge. At a local level, churches used to be good at that, as did friendly societies.  Does a more hopeful future lie with new communities of shared belief, modern forms of mutual aid?  But if so, we have to recognise that the forces stacked against this are immense.  In so many areas of life positive human relationships are under threat, or have been all but eliminated, and this makes it harder than ever to build solidarity.

And yet, the impulse towards association runs very deep. The language we use and the stories we tell can remind us of this, and can build the confidence to drive change.  Small changes in language can signal a deeper intention: at the Clitterhouse Farm Project the local volunteers who are bringing a historic Victorian farm in North London into community ownership are called ‘stewards’, and this works because the people involved recognise that their role is both responsible and reciprocal, and that they are all playing a part in a bigger and enduring story.