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Mike Adamson: Charities need to raise our game to shape and drive system change

29 Sep 2021 Voices

With the sector still waiting to find out who will be the next minister for civil society, Mike Adamson from the British Red Cross reflects on what the delay tells us and what needs to happen now

Fergus Burnett

Nearly two weeks and counting since Baroness Barran was moved to the Department of Education in the government reshuffle. And we have yet to hear who will replace her. 

It feels like a rather striking indictment of the current level of perceived importance that charities have in the corridors of Westminster and beyond. 

When I talk to my peers, we discuss the issues which keep us up at night: impact, inclusion, survival, trust, resilience and wellbeing of ourselves and our people, how to maintain relevance. But we also recognise that as a sector we need to raise our game, especially when it comes to shaping and driving significant, longer term systemic change.  

System change nearly always involves policy change and one thing that is clear is that our relationship with government is not where it needs to be. Recent developments relating to the reduction of international aid highlight the limited influence even of our collective voice. 

Too often government either sees us a nice to have or only as a way to pay tribute to a community and volunteering spirit. At worst, we are seen as woke, drowning in our own political correctness, not totally reliable for the really big challenges the nation faces. As a collective, we have a tendency to group-think or put ideology above action. Our umbrella bodies and sector spokespeople don’t always have the cohesion or cut-through required. 

We won’t fix this deficit overnight and no one can do it alone. We need to find a way to effectively engage with governments no matter their stripes. This requires us to be sophisticated in our influencing, propositional with solutions not just oppositional with shrill criticism or calls for cash. We must also play a critical role in bearing witness to what we see and supporting the voices of people with lived experience to be heard. We may not agree with government proposals in key areas but, if we are serious, we have to engage. 

Charities are about more than plugging gaps

Charities small and large, local and global, have supported communities through the past eighteen months – in many cases, by getting food and other critical, basic items to those who would otherwise have struggled to cope. This work has been a lifeline. But the role of the sector goes beyond plugging gaps. It’s when we are really pushing boundaries, forging much-needed system change, that we can drive huge, fundamental shifts in the experiences of those in need.

Early charities paved the way for the modern welfare state responding to society’s needs in deeply unpopular causes – unwanted orphans, prostitution, poverty. They filled the gaps where no one else would. While huge strides have been made, some of these issues are still with us today.

To continue to push boundaries, we need to develop stronger alliances with each other and outside the sector. Every charity I have encountered has a vision that is beyond its capacity to achieve on its own. We need to be at ease with a systems approach and a shared theory of change – who are the other actors that affect the outcomes for the achievement of our vision? What are we prepared to sacrifice of our own brand to enable the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts? We need to overcome historical suspicion between small and large charities, presume goodwill, be humble and change the world.

Over the past two years, the British Red Cross has recognised the significant challenges it cannot solve alone and has sought to be part of building strong alliances –which have included the Asylum Reform Initiative and the Emergencies Partnership. 

I am personally committed to both of these coalitions. I am not going to pretend that at times this hasn’t been hard work - different voices, brands, approaches and supporter bases can all create periodic disagreement. But finding a common cause and choosing the points of intervention that will have the greatest impact has also been hugely rewarding. 

What is clear is that for us to push boundaries today and in the future, we need to be prepared to change the way we do things. We need to forge new relationships with the people we serve, develop new alliances and a revitalised partnership with government. Today’s challenges transcend the ability of any single organisation to make more than a small difference on its own.

Every relationship is (at least) a two-way street. On its side, government needs to work with charities to serve the country that elected it. Our reach, our expertise, our local and national knowledge could be so much better utilised. That challenge must be at the top of the in-tray when the new charities minister is appointed.

Mike Adamson is chief executive of the British Red Cross

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.


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