Submissions for the 2022 Charity Shop Survey close Friday!

Find out more and download the questionnaire here

From campaigners and doers, to changemakers and enablers

10 Nov 2014 Voices

Paul Farmer outlines his vision for a sector made up of changemakers and enablers. This is one of a series of extracts from a forthcoming book of essays on the future of the voluntary sector, Making Good: The Future of the Voluntary Sector.  The collected extracts are available at Civil Exchange. 

Paul Farmer outlines his vision for a sector made up of changemakers and enablers. 

The sector is in a good state but it needs to adapt and develop, as it has always done, to meet the needs of the beneficiaries we serve and take its place as a true ‘third sector’, a credible yet different alternative to the public sector and the private sector.

Campaigners and doers…

Like many others in our sector, Mind has emerged as an organisation that ‘campaigns and does’. The reason for this is simple: supporting and listening to our beneficiaries. Over many years, people with mental health problems have told us two things – they want help and support for themselves, and they want the world in which they live to improve. To fulfil these objectives, we aim to influence civil society, not just government, but business, faith groups, sports networks and communities. Within mental health, our partnership with Rethink Mental Illness to establish the Time to Change campaign has led to a measurable improvement in public attitudes to mental health. Beyond mental health, we have worked with organisations ranging from the Conservation Volunteers and the Wildlife Trusts to Crisis and Gingerbread, as well as more obvious partners such as Scope and Mencap. But we also work with large employers from American Express to Deloitte and with a wide range of government departments, as we build awareness, understanding and action on mental health.

And with an improved focus on impact, we can also assess the success of our ‘doing’ work, mainly delivered through national services such as our Infoline and digital resources, and locally through our network of 150 local Minds. Of course not everything works perfectly, but we can point to evaluation showing the effect of an ‘Ecominds’ approach to green therapy, to stakeholder research of opinion-formers reflecting our impact and, most importantly, opinion from people who use our own services. Our local Mind network routinely asks beneficiaries about the quality and outcome of their experiences of the support they receive.

…to changemakers and enablers

So much to be proud of. But this sector cannot and must not stand still.

The current model has worked well. As charities mature, they can find change harder to manage. Perhaps the lure of the establishment is too great. Maybe established service models need reforming but there’s internal resistance to the change. The biggest risk is you lose touch with your beneficiaries because you’ve stopped listening to them and started listening too much to other people. Fortunately, our sector has shown itself to be more than capable of spotting this and acting upon it, and I’m convinced it will do the same again.

We are rightly in the business of changing the world – eradicate disease, end poverty, save the whale – and so we should be. It’s what our beneficiaries want. But we can’t do this on our own. The future will be more collaborative across the sector, finding common cause, influencing policy, raising the ambition for our society.

I have two suggestions for our role as we go forward.

First, we evolve from leading campaigns to supporting changemakers.

We saw an early sign of this last year, when Tesco and Asda put on sale the ‘mental patient’ outfits.  One of the supporters of Time to Change noticed this and posted it on Twitter. We tweeted about it, but it acquired a life of its own as thousands of friends and family spoke out publicly. Three hours later, the costumes had been withdrawn. The next day people with mental health problems reclaimed the term ‘mental patient’ using it as a hashtag alongside photographs of themselves doing things like having a cup of tea, going to work etc. We didn’t lead this campaign, we simply drew it to the attention of people who as citizen activists helped to achieve change.

This is not the end of staff campaigners. There will still be a significant need for the skills and expertise of policy and campaigning staff – many of whom also bring their own experiences – and they will empower others and build the next generation of activists.

That takes me to the second point: we will become enablers.

At our best, this is what we do anyway. Create a different debate, change the environment, help people to help themselves – it’s a message you’ll hear from Oxfam through to Scope and beyond. I’d like to think we will see this becoming a mainstay of our charitable activities; sharing information and expertise (sometimes for a fee), supporting others to get it right.

A key part of this enabling role will be our proximity to our beneficiaries, and their communities. This brings me to my final point.

Combing national with local through federated networks

I’m fortunate to have worked for two federated networks, Mind and Samaritans. They are part of a wider network of federated charities. From the outside, they can look inefficient and a bit unwieldy. But look under the bonnet. How else could Samaritans have upwards of 450 phone lines open for virtually nothing, 24 hours a day? How could Citizens Advice provide reliable and respected advice to millions of people face-to-face, and local Minds reach out to 400,000 people every year whose mental health is struggling?

The answer is that these charities combine the distinctive value of locally run organisations with the wider reach and voice of a national network. This allows them to shape national policies without losing touch with communities. This could be one model for a stronger voluntary sector over the next decade. Whenever I go to a local Mind, I’m always struck by how resilient, adaptable and evolving they are in response to a constant sea of change. It is this ability to develop that will be vitally important.

Paul Farmer is chief executive of Mind

  • This is one of a series of extracts from a forthcoming book of essays on the future of the voluntary sector, ‘Making Good: The Future of the Voluntary Sector’.  The collected extracts are available at Civil Exchange.


More on