Last week I had a chance to be one of the speakers at a fringe event on “The Future of Charities” at the Labour Party conference hosted by Common Vision (CoVi), a fairly new think tank that tries to use different forms of media to bring policy issues to life. The event was one of a series they were running under the moniker of ‘The Policy Factor!’, where the conceit was that auditionees (of which I was one) would pitch policy ideas to a panel of judges (in this case the MP Susan Elan Jones and the CEO of the Media Trust, Caroline Diehl).
I have to admit to a smidgen of scepticism prior to the event, as you never know whether that sort of high-concept gimmick is going to liven things up or just feel, well… gimmicky. But I needn’t have worried in this case, as the event was really good and had great energy (although perhaps I’m biased because I like the sound of my own voice!) My one criticism is that I think if you were going to choose a reality show format to reference, Dragons’ Den would actually be closer to the mark…
The event was broadcast live on Periscope (twitter’s live video streaming service), and you can still watch it here if you are so minded. For those without the time or technology to do that, here are the six ideas I pitched to the judges, which I niftily categorized as two ideas influenced by the past, two responding to the present and two looking to the future:
1) The first idea based on appreciating the past is to recognize the importance of campaigning and advocacy by charities. It is one of my absolute bugbears when people who object to charities getting involved in the political sphere try to paint this as some sort of new phenomenon and suggest that charities somehow need to ‘get back to what they are supposed to do’ as this demonstrates an almost total lack of understanding of the actual history of philanthropy and charity.
Philanthropy is an inherently political act (with a small “p”, as I argue in my book Public Good by Private Means, because it is about wanting to change something in our society. Whilst providing direct services to those in need is a valid way of doing this on a small scale, if you want to effect true systemic change it is almost always necessary to try to influence public opinion and policy through campaigning and advocacy, and many of the most famous social reforms driven by the charitable sector have come about in this way (e.g. the abolition of slavery, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the establishment of a system of national parks etc.)
I also pointed out to the judges that in the present day there is a clear and worrying trend for governments around the world to clamp down on the freedom of charities to speak out (the so-called ‘closing space for civil society’). By taking a negative and repressive view of charitable campaigning here in the UK, politicians and policymakers not only risk undermining our nation’s soft power, but also setting an example that other regimes around the world can use to justify their own repression (as we argued in a recent Giving Thought paper)
I proposed as a policy measure that if we are to get a ‘British Bill of Rights’ now that we have voted to leave the European Union, the right of charities to campaign freely should be one of the things enshrined in it. This is one of the ideas in the A Stronger Britain report which we produced for the party conferences, which looks at the issue of charities in post-Brexit Britain in more detail.
2) My second ‘back-to-the-future’ proposal was to reinvigorate the link between philanthropy and civic identity.
The history of philanthropy here in the UK is littered with examples of philanthropic individuals or families (often businesspeople or industrialists) who were inextricably linked with particular towns and cities: like Whitworth in Manchester, the Cadburys in Birmingham, the Rowntrees in York and the Rathbones in Liverpool. These big donors were often responsible for establishing many organizations and civic institutions that are still with us today (for more about the history of philanthropy in the UK, check out my book).
Over time, for various reasons, this sort of ‘place-based philanthropy’ has weakened in this country. In contrast, in the US for instance, place continues to be a hugely important factor in philanthropy, and there are still many philanthropists who are strongly linked to particular cities and who give vast amounts to fund civic institutions.
In part this is a reflection of geography and the differing balance of power amongst cities: US cities are a lot further apart, bigger, and often have particular industries associated with them, which means that they have sufficient critical mass of wealth to have a community of wealthy donors and those donors are more likely to feel an affinity for the city. In the UK, on the other hand, the economy in modern times has become severely imbalanced in favour of London. The wealth and sense of identity of other cities (many of which were built on industries that have either massively declined or disappeared entirely) has at the same time declined.
However, in recent years, there has been a lot of talk about ‘rebalancing the economy’ and we have seen policy initiatives like the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the introduction of elected mayors. All of which demonstrates that there is a desire to address the decline in civic identity around the UK.
My pitch to the judges on this one was that philanthropy could be a vital tool for reinvigorating a sense of civic identity, and should be a key part of plans to devolve power to local areas. City mayors, for instance, could appoint philanthropy liaisons, whose job would be to get to know their donor community and engage with them positively to see whether there are opportunities to attract place-based philanthropy alongside public funding.
3) My first ‘response to the present’ idea was that charities could play a vital role in post-Brexit Britain. Quite aside from the mechanics of extricating our country from decades of legislation and regulation, there is a separate question about what we do to address the divisions within our society that the referendum vote brought to light. The scale of disaffection in the nation took many by surprise and the stark divides in voting patterns in terms of geography, age, income, education etc cannot be ignored.
Charities, by their nature, are often deeply-rooted within communities and work with those who have been marginalised or let down by society. They are thus uniquely well-placed both to play a part in trying to heal existing divisions and to act as an ‘early warning system’ so that such deep divides cannot develop unnoticed in the future. To that end, government should involve charities in its plans for addressing the national challenges of post-Brexit Britain. Local Authorities and other public bodies should also ensure that they build up and maintain strong links with charities in their area so that they can get the benefit of their insight into what is going on within local communities. This is an idea explored further in our A Stronger Britain report.
4) The second idea for the here-and-now was about how charities engage with young people. There has been a lot of discussion within the charity sector about whether young people today are less likely to give than those of previous generations, whether they are interested in different causes and whether their native use of new technologies makes them fundamentally different from other potential donors and supporters. Here at CAF we have looked into some of these issues in various projects including our ‘Growing Giving’ parliamentary inquiry.
Broadly, it seems as though concerns about the younger generation not being charitable are unfounded: young people are deeply concerned about the world around them and keen to find ways to put these concerns into practice through social action, ethical consumerism, campaigning etc. What does appear to be different about younger people is that they are less interested in organisational loyalty and more interested in specific causes or campaigns. We can see this reflected in the fact that membership of political parties has been steadily declining (at least until the remarkable resurgence in Labour Party membership since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader), whilst at the same time there has been a boom in online petitions and campaigns organisations such as change.org and 38 Degrees. People don’t want to sign up to the whole gamut of what a particular organisation is offering, but rather want to pick and choose the bits they care about most.
For charities, what this means is that there may need to be an adjustment in mindset: rather than trying to establish a base of supporters who it can be assumed will remain loyal to the organisation, there may need to be more focus in building support for individual campaigns and projects from people who may never have supported the organisation before and may never do so again.
5) For my first ‘looking-to-the-future’ idea, I decided to reference my work on blockchain technology. You can read all about that via this jazzy new dedicated microsite, so I won’t go into it in depth here. Basically what I argued during this event is that blockchain or other distributed ledger technology is coming, and will have potentially major implications for charities and their supporters, so in order for it to become an opportunity rather than a threat we need to get ahead of the technology now before it overtakes us.
In practical terms, I reiterated our suggestion that the government should involve charities in its trials of blockchain technology. The report issued by the Government’s Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport earlier this year called for the introduction of pilots of the technology in many areas of governmental activity. However, there are also many potentially valuable use cases in the charitable sector, and given that the government could not only fulfil its mission to support charities by working with them on blockchain pilots, but also might learn things which would be applicable in other contexts, it makes perfect sense to factor these charity use cases into any plans.
6) And for my final idea, I went back to something I wrote a blog about a few months ago: the challenge that technology poses in terms of locking people into “social siloes”. Plenty has been written about the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, in which people only interact with others of a like mind and thus have their own opinions strengthened and their attitudes towards those with different viewpoints hardened (for the perfect example, take the increasingly vitriolic EU Referendum “debate”). As I wrote previously, I think that new technologies like Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and non-visual interfaces (e.g. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo) could exacerbate this effect because they provide even more extreme methods of filtering reality.
The challenge for charities, to my mind, is that there is a real danger that if people are able to put themselves in protective bubbles of experience, they are far less likely to have the (often uncomfortable) interactions that make them aware of the needs of those less fortunate than themselves. And there is research that shows that when people are less aware of the needs around them, they are less likely to act charitably.
The flipside is that there is an opportunity: just as technologies like AR and VR could shield people from the harsher realities of the world around them by filtering their experience to remove those elements, they could also be used to make people more aware of the wider world by drawing those elements in in an appropriate way. We are already seeing this on a small scale, with projects like Alzheimers Research’s ‘A Walk Through Dementia’ app, which aims to give people a sense of what life is like for those living with dementia; or Charity:Water’s Virtual reality fundraising film The Source which show people the effect that a water drilling project has on the life of a young girl in Ethiopia.
The obvious problem, of course, is that you have to get people sufficiently motivated to go and seek these experiences out. But what if, in future, there were ways of weaving them much more subtly into the fabric of an AR/VR-based world? Could charities find ways to harness the technology in order to open people’s eyes to the world around them rather than become increasingly blinkered? I think so, and that they would benefit from the support of government and others not only when it comes to developing the technology but also thinking through the moral, legal and political consequences.
We plan to develop all of these ideas further over the coming years as part of the work of our Giving Thought think tank.