Building Better Way organisations

London cell 3: 5th October 2017

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

We started by noting that collaboration, and sharing, can produce added value. But a great deal of what we learn through life pushes us in a different direction, towards individualised achievement. Indeed at school we are often taught not to share and even that sharing can be cheating. 

And some of the language we use, ‘sharing economy’ and ‘social capital’ for example, reveals the extent of the problem: as if collaboration can only be validated through the concepts we use to describe competitive free market economics.   We need better ways of telling the story, and we discussed the power of parable (as in the Biblical story of the loaves and fishes).

We noted that in the voluntary sector, as public funding has reduced and the operating environment has become more difficult, collaboration has sometimes improved.  One example is the recent co-operation among race equality agencies, with joint bidding, potential mergers, etc.  But equally external pressures can produce the opposite response, with agencies keeping their heads down and fighting their own corner, and ultimately disappearing.  This was the case with BME-led housing associations in Yorkshire, which rejected the opportunity to merge, and instead were swallowed up by mainstream housing associations, and their community identity was lost.

Under pressure, in times of crisis, we tend to act in a highly directive way, in order to overcome problems, and  get the job done, but this can develop a centralised culture of control which is hard to break.  When we cannot find time for involvement of others we act on our ‘instincts’ which are an expression of values for good or for bad. 

We touched on the precarious nature of contractual relationships to deliver public services in a climate of spending cuts: we become an instrument of the state, but progressively starved of capital and revenue, we become constrained and limited in what we can do, and trapped in a failing system with no way out. The introduction of private finance and social investment into this mix can make things even worse, as our organisations lose their sense of core purpose and their agendas become determined by commercial considerations.

We discussed the implications of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.  On the one hand we observed that many agencies, including charities, were quick to stereotype the residents as poor, marginalised, and vulnerable people, inherently victims.  But this misses out the rich variety of their lives, their considerable skills and talents, the range of occupations and wealth, the pride that many took in their homes, the network of neighbourliness in the tower block.  As this demonstrates, there is a prevailing tendency for social sector organisations to think about beneficiaries, service users, communities in negative terms, as ‘them’ -  essentially different from ‘us’.

On the other hand, we felt that over recent decades in many groups of low income residents, there has been a loss in collective identity and solidarity, and consequently in grass roots social campaigning. People are concerned with addressing their individual needs, but much less so in collective action.

So what can we do about all this?  

We talked about the role of intermediaries, skilled individuals as well as agencies, which can create bridges between people with power and resources, and those who feel powerless.  Such individuals and organisations (eg community ‘anchor’ organisations) can be valuable change agents, building connectivity and relationships.

We considered the notion of ‘radical listening’, discussed at another cell meeting recently, where the direction of listening is primarily directed towards communities rather than towards funders or government. 

This brings profound implications for the types of organisations which can achieve most to bring about positive social change.  Can we develop ‘buildings without walls’ – truly permeable organisational  structures – which nevertheless can be capable of sustained existence?  In such organisations diversity and connections between diverse groups and interests would become an obvious prerequisite for success rather than a token gesture.

We often claim, falsely, that our organisations deliver outcomes.  It would be better to say that we sow seeds – nurturing growth and development in individuals, communities, systems.  Or, to use a different metaphor, we walk alongside (‘accompaniment’) and by promoting social change we help to clear the path.