Building Better Way organisations

London cell 2: 2nd October 2017

The topic we discussed was how to build a Better Way organisation, following on from an earlier dinner on this topic by the founding cell.

We started with the Better Way principle: collaboration is better than competition. Steve Wyler gave an example:  the School of Social Entrepreneurs had recently created a new form of grant funding called ‘match trading’: pound-for-pound grant funding which matches an increase in trading income.  This is designed to incentivise and reward income generating activities, and therefore to achieve more sustainable social impact. Early results were extremely promising and the School had wondered whether to ‘patent’ the idea for its own organisational gain but decided instead to collaborate with others to build a shared brand and community of practice, believing that would better meet serve its own cause as well as the wider social sector. 

Other examples were explored and the point was made that collaborations such as these also bring multiple benefits.  Relationships of trust are formed that make it possible at a later point to work together on bids, for example.  Being forced into social impact bonds and competitive behaviour often lead to attempts to create a market when it does not exist.  The model often does not work for activity with a social purpose, where value is generated differently.  An understanding of social purpose is a core strength of the social sector and can undermined by competitive models, it was argued.  The sector should have more confidence.   How about a delegation to Silicon Valley to bring our knowledge of social purpose to them?  Despite their initial idealism and mission statements, the big social media companies are driven cynically by money not people.

The discussion then moved to the role of quality assurance processes in driving organisational improvement.  The problem here, the group thought, is that they are often driven by external pressures from funders, including government, and are motivated by the need to prove worth to those in Government or in funders because of lack trust.  They can become 'a theatrical performance', may encourage organisations to think inside rather than outside the box and may help to validate ‘zombie’ organisations that should no longer exist.  True accountability, the group felt, comes from within.  It is far better when organisations move toward ‘reflective practice’, asking themselves honest questions, creating a journey that may genuinely lead to change and not simply reproducing what has earlier been regarded as ‘best practice’.  

There were systems changes that could help.  Involving HR and aligning personnel systems to reinforce key behaviours, for example, with a golden thread from the mission and objectives of the organisation down to personal objectives.  But there is a danger that these systems simply become top down and target driven and fail to create the kind of inspiration and greater autonomy that genuinely creates a Better Way.  As one example given in the group illustrated, when you recruit on the basis of the purpose of the new job, rather than specifying a skill set or past experience, you may find people with a better match to what you really want and be able to allow them much greater autonomy.  Clarity of purpose is vital.

Clarity of purpose can lead to some radical places.  At Scope, we were told that a new CEO has recognised that by focusing on services they are only reaching 1000 people and he is recasting the organisation to be a facilitator not a service provider, which has had radical implication for staff and revenue numbers.

The right governance and leadership are what really matter, rather than the processes. Systems, and the maximising of income that are the current focus of many in the sector. That said, it was recognised that giving too free a rein could lead to problems like those seen at Kids Company.  Financial disciplines and clarity not just about purpose were important.   There was a healthy suspicion of management tools but a recognition that we can take from the best of them.  Money mattered but only when related to mission and good leaders were good at recognising this.

Part of the difficulty of breaking free of current patterns of behaviour and organisational models is that there is not a common space for new conversations.  Currently, some organisations dominate discussions, particularly funders, because of their power.  We talked of creating ‘an open square’ or a neutral space so that everyone enjoys the same status.  One example of this is in the Ignite project in Coventry, where they try to encourage different conversations through a ‘walk in the park’.  Local authority members, leaders and residents take turns to speak to each other informally.  Perhaps the voluntary organisations should invite funders to come to them to talk about shared objectives, rather than spending time filling out their application forms and pretending that the work of the organisation would meet the funders’ objectives precisely?

‘Driven by dreams, judged on delivery’ from the statement of intent of Community Links was discussed (and picked apart) as a potential model.  The general view was it was important to keep sight of how well the organisation was doing in achieving its purpose but that the current funding model of delivery of outcomes or outputs has led to problems.   One quotation, ‘I don’t deliver outputs, I sow seeds,’ struck a chord with many in the room because it highlighted the need to take risks and take a long view – ‘oak trees, not annuals’.  It also captured the reality that voluntary organisations don’t change lives, despite often claiming this, individuals do.  Instead, voluntary organisations ‘accompany’ people on their journey.  ‘Sowing seeds’ encouraged ‘humility’ as one person put it, but also encouraged the confidence to articulate an alternative model to the creation of social value to that dominating the sector at present. 

The rallying cry that emerged from the discussion was to stop thinking about organisations and start thinking about social change in relation to A Better Way.  We need ‘activist leaders’ and the sector should be much bolder and braver about how it works and start being much more innovative about how things are done.   It should unlock the potential of individual communities through ‘radical listening’ and put them, not the professionals in the organisations, more in control.  One model of new working methods mentioned was Tech for Good, which is creating technology with ‘humankind in mind’.   

These changes must be based on mutual trust and genuine dialogue between social partners, rather than just the box ticking of quality assurance systems.  Clarity of purpose and an internal culture of honesty that encourages reflective practice and the pursuit of excellence in the delivery of that purpose is also critical.