These are strange times. Last week I had the experience of being rather publicly given a compliment in this journal. In Asheem Singh’s strident article he credited me by name as being one of a handful of charity CEOs who impresses him with my approach to lobbying, including the ability to alienate between 25% and 40% of my “natural constituency”, to show that I “mean business” and actually have “something worth saying”.
The rest of the article appeared to be a no-holds-barred critique of the many valued VCSE infrastructure colleagues with whom I have forged strong collaborative relationships through the pandemic. It came wrapped in nostalgia for the halcyon days of the “legends” of sector leadership of yore. Isn’t this the time, we were asked, for a grand unification of infrastructure bodies, to regain the strength, power and impact of those days when two men had the ear of the prime minister of the day, any time of night or day? I began to wonder what I’d done to earn a special mention in such a piece.
It’s true that I tend to believe that in this job, if you’re saying something no-one could possibly disagree with, it’s worth questioning whether it’s a point worth making. I have embarked, over many years at Children England, on a personal journey to say the things that many of my members cannot say, or don’t feel free to say, or don’t get heard saying when they do. We turned the idea of member representation on its head to say that our members pay us to speak out on issues and in ways they might not do by themselves, while I never claim to speak for them.
With their consent and support
I consider it the greatest privilege of my life to be able to be the voice for such a creative approach to membership and representation. It’s not the case, however, that I do it with a willingness, let alone a relish, for alienating a significant proportion of them. I do it with their consent and support. The background work, the listening and the care that goes into this approach is extensive. If my public positioning and statements are of a character that’s particularly notable to Asheem then that’s great, but it’s still a collective effort. There’s nothing I’ve written or lobbied for that hasn’t been bounced around, contested, refined and shaped by the whole Children England team. It is an approach that has been actively encouraged by the great charity leaders who represent our members as trustees on my board.
There’s no particular reason why anyone outside of my organisation should know that. That is the beauty of working behind the scenes of one’s publicly visible voice, in quiet collaboration with people and organisations willing to share the difference between their public positions, their private fears, and their contextual constraints. Every single one of my colleagues in the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign shares their own equivalent dilemmas and nuanced pictures every time we meet. It is the very nuts and bolts of collaborative working: it gets sticky; consensus-finding is hard, and rightly so; but the commitment to find it is relentlessly present, and inevitably hidden from view. Coalition working can be exceedingly frustrating sometimes, but it’s what I got into this job for in the first place – the messy stuff that eventually, one hopes, reaches sharp clarity; or if it doesn’t, at least clarifies and settles the nature of the complexity and our mutual differences.
The problem I have with the article is the clarion call to rationalise our “Umbrella Hell”. I find it old-fashioned and monopolistic. I’m tired of hearing the repeated fallacy that mergers are self-evidently more efficient than multiple smaller organisations, like some kind of Gordon Gekko Groundhog Day! But I’m also worried about the idea that in representing the interests of such a diverse sector there should ideally be only one – one organisation, one leader, expected to embody and represent us all in unity, with some superhuman combined force of boundless charisma, cunning and connections. The bigger the better, the fewer the voices, the clearer the leadership and the more influential we can be? I just don’t buy it, and never have.
I have no idea what statements or campaigns of mine have drawn me to Asheem’s attention, but it’s highly likely to include my work on challenging competitive market ideology and the ruination it has brought to the charity service sector. There are few things in any field on which there is wholesale consensus, but in economics there is one, extremely rare, area of common ground shared from the political left to the right: monopolies and cartels are bad. From Facebook and Amazon, to private equity cartels in the care market, no serious commentator or analyst argues in favour of monopoly power. Yet monopoly infrastructure is what we’re asked to yearn for in civil society. A singularity of strong leadership, willing to upset and alienate people as they wield their consolidated power, in the absence of the noisy confusion of a multiplicity of voices and specialisms. I cannot and will not endorse it. I seek only greater diversity of voice and leadership coming to the fore.
I’ve worked in large, medium and small charities for over 30 years and I’ve genuinely loved and learnt from them all. I’ve been a care worker, a full-time volunteer, a sentence case-worker, a counsellor, a secure unit manager, a policy officer, researcher, campaigner, a trustee, a policy director, and eventually a CEO. I’ve done quasi-civil service policy work and changed the way things work from the inside. I’ve done ‘outsider’ campaigning and won the odd spectacular defeat of a government policy (and lost many more). I ran a large charity’s whole policy and lobbying team for nearly a decade and we did both, concurrently, as the particular cause and its context demanded. All of those experiences inform my approach to lobbying. It’s not instinct, it’s applied learning, and there is absolutely nothing I do, or have ever done, alone.
What we're facing is utterly new
What we’re facing during this pandemic as a sector, as a society, and in our political landscape is, nonetheless, utterly new to me. It stretches every sinew of my being to work out not just what to say about it, but what to try to do about it. Working that out is never a perfect science, it takes many various attempts, diverse voices and approaches. It means making mistakes and learning from them, listening carefully to criticism and disagreement, as well as building support. No single strategy for change can be guaranteed of success, but the chances of something working are heightened by the variation and diversity of attempts. If, as a sector, we were to put all our eggs in one single infrastructure basket, one single CEO, one human being onto whom to project all our hopes of success and fears of failure, none of that learning through variation, collaboration and mistake-making could take place.
It’s always good to know that my work is noticed, let alone that it impresses someone who clearly pays so much attention and thought to the huge challenges facing the sector. But I can only do what I do, the way I do it, in the space Children England occupies within the wider ecosystem of the sector, the rich diversity of our sister organisations, and through on-going, respectful dialogue with other leaders who are on the same page as us, as well as those who aren’t. Our mission at Children England is to change the world for England’s children, and we know it’s impossible to do that by ourselves. The world in which monopoly power is equated with strong leadership is a big part of the world I am devoted to changing, not recreating.