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Guest author

Charities must do more than survive, they must change too

Guest author

Alex Fox is chief executive of Mayday Trust.

You can join Alex at the Lifting the Lid on PTS: Strengths-Based Support and System Reform – New System Alliance on 3 March 2022, 09.15-13.00.

In Meeting as Equals: creating asset-based charities which have real impact, I argued that how we work is as important as what we do. A big part of the ‘how’ is who the ‘we’ is. Where a charity supports a group or community, but the people doing that support work are rarely members of that same group or community, what social divisions, assumptions or exclusions are we perpetuating?

In the paper, I drew on examples from charities that have embraced ‘asset-based’ working. This means looking for the strengths, assets and potential of people and communities, not just their problems or needs. As charities we can, and must, attempt to weave asset-based working into every area of our practice, from governance and leadership, to fundraising, campaigning and support work.

Embedding this approach at the British Red Cross

British Red Cross (BRC) held a seminar with some of their leadership team, looking at how far they’ve come along this road and where they might want to go next. Cat Harwood-Smith, BRC’s director for insight and improvement, said:

We’ve made a commitment to embrace asset-based ways of working and to put people at the heart of what we do. We wanted to turn commitments into action and to use the areas for change laid out in Meeting as Equals to assess ourselves against and shape our roadmap.

Core business for BRC is disaster response, which presents some challenges for asset-based working. Crisis response usually needs to be rapid, pre-planned and highly structured. A crisis can be a very appropriate time for top-down, command and control leadership. If your community floods, you want essentials to arrive now, rather than to embark on a lengthy discussion first.

Perhaps, as a result, the disaster response sector has not always been the first to embrace ideas like co-production. Throughout the pandemic, the huge surge in people coming forward through mutual aid and other informal groups has shown us that ordinary people will organise and step up. Often this happened without any organisation at all.

How far do we go?

While there is an appetite for radicalism, there is a need to bring a large and complex organisation on that journey at a pace that doesn’t leave some behind. Every charity attempting real change has this tension between wanting to disrupt current thinking and create discomfort, but there being limits to how much messiness and uncertainty a team or board can use constructively.

BRC’s initial steps include the following:

  • Holding collaborative asset mapping workshops with over 90 staff and volunteers from across the organisation, who share the commitment to come on this journey.
  • Piloting ways to establish inclusion and reciprocity in the way teams operate, looking at how finance systems, budgets and processes can support inclusion. This will help the organisation to connect with people who have the skills, assets and experience needed to make BRC’s work person-centred.
  • Co-producing a value and recognition strategy to recognise and build on the strengths of people with lived experience in a way that builds equality.

Given the need for the organisation to react rapidly in some of its work, an asset-based approach will rely on investment in building relationships with communities, and a diverse range of community leaders, before a crisis. Though staff at BRC reflected that their sector can ‘pendulum’ between centralising and localising tendencies, the huge jump in instant connectivity seen through the pandemic creates new opportunities to draw on community assets and leadership.

Risk averse or risk selective?

A lot comes down to how an organisation feels about risk. It strikes me that, when we introduce radical change, we’re usually attempting to reassure more risk-averse stakeholders that risks can be reduced and managed. But ‘risk-averse’ organisations are no such thing. They are risk-selective; highly aware of some risks (to their organisation), but sometimes wilfully blind to others (the risks that matter most to people).

Before considering the risks of new approaches, we should reflect on the risks we’ve ignored in our current ways of working:

  • excluding already-oppressed communities because we haven’t understood or empowered everyone
  • wasting scarce resources providing support that could have been better provided by the community
  • creating dependency or perpetuating stereotypes.

In other words, the risks of well-meaning people doing the wrong thing.
The field of disaster response is a fascinating test case for how far we can, and even should, embed asset-based thinking in a field that must act rapidly and consistently. I’ll leave the last words to Cat: “The journey will undoubtedly be long but there is a sense of excitement now! We want asset-based working to become part of our DNA.”

Meeting as Equals: creating asset-based charities which have real impact is published by RSA/ NCVO.

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