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Finance | Ian Allsop | 1 Sep 2010

Did the government pick up the Big Society idea in a charity shop, wonders Ian Allsop?

In the spirit of Big Society I am not going to write anything this month. Instead I will roll back and empower readers to get together and volunteer their own sarcastic, topical opinion. This will mean the rest of this page will be blank so feel free to add your own comments or cartoons to illuminate the page.

Actually, as a model this wouldn’t work as freelance journalists are paid by number of words but it would ultimately save publishers some money so the parallels to Big Society (or BS as I will now call it) are striking.

As well as BS, one of the other features of this government has been its apparent desire to involve us all in decision-making even though it was our collective failure to reach consensus that resulted in the coalition in the first place. This means we have been asked what laws we want changing, what ideas we have for policy-making and ways of saving money. These will then get ignored unless they are things that were going to happen anyway.

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is the “now” phrase and is defined as “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call” (again, note echoes of BS). Mind you, that definition is from Wikipedia (itself a prime example of crowdsourcing) so might not be true.

My initial observation about crowdsourcing is that if whoever pioneered the concept had bothered to apply its principles to coming up with a decent name, it probably wouldn’t have ended up with such an instantly dislikeable managementspeak moniker.

Exercises such as NCVO’s Crowdsourcing the Cuts – a call for information on how the cuts are affecting charities (what used to be called research) – have real value. But when it comes to government asking for suggestions on how it should govern it seems less like consultative management than window-dressing (unless they genuinely don’t have a clue). To be really Big Society perhaps we should all just get on with ourselves without them.

The government’s initial attempts at crowdsourcing seem to have been largely ignored, or scoffed at, which ironically is what we could all have told them would happen, if they had crowdsourced whether crowdsourcing was a good idea in the first place.

But it doesn’t mean that people don’t have ideas they can contribute. As a full-time Dad, if I wasn’t so busy setting up my own school and running a local police force, I’d implement a great Big Society idea I have had.

My big idea

Get this. Volunteers in communities come together and collect unwanted clothing, books and bric-a-brac and then re-sell them in retail outlets. The profits are applied to good causes that the State doesn’t fully fund. I have even got a name for this radical initiative. Charity shops. I have long been a fan of charity shops. They are a great place to buy second-hand books that my wife says we have no room for and thus end up being taken to another charity shop, creating an effective cycle of reinvested charitable assets.

When I was at university I started collecting obscure and tacky mugs bought at charity shops. I don’t know a) why I did this and b) why I am making this public but there is probably a clue in the word “mug”.

And they are a great source of surprising presents. The look on my wife’s face as she opened her taco warmer (still in its original box) bought for two quid at Sue Ryder Care will always live with me.

But reading material, drinking vessels and Mexican street-food heat-retention devices are all driving forces behind a retail success story, especially during the recession. The results of the Charity Shops Survey 2010 illustrate once again the impressive performance of charity shops, enjoying income growth of almost 10 per cent and profit rises of 7 per cent. This demonstrates that the principles underpinning BS, where local enthusiasm combined with enterprise and hard work to make a difference, are very much already woven into the fabric of British life already. Not that I am saying for one moment that the idea is therefore second-hand.

Cynicism aside there is a real role for charities if BS ends up actually being anything other than a dizzy blonde idea. But as has been said many times, it will need funding. And there is a danger that instead of building on some already sound foundations the new government will seek to erect new designs from scratch. This could leave a lot of undervalued and half-forgotten, but still-in-decent-condition projects behind, which charities will then valiantly try to make the best of. Like much of the stock in charity shops. 

 

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Ian Allsop

Ian Allsop is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in not-for-profit management and financial issues.

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