Saturday, January 21, 2012

Time for the Old Guard To Go - My piece from Third Sector this week

If you think 2011 was a bad year, brace yourself for worse. 2012 will probably go down as the first year the UK felt the full force of long-term austerity. No longer can charities expect this downturn to be like a dose of the flu - nasty for a bit, but fine again soon. No, this is more like a bout of pneumonia - long, agonising and potentially fatal. In the next decade, the UK will become a poorer, less equal and potentially less harmonious place. And we just don't know how our society or our political system will cope with it.

Away from the public eye, all the political parties are struggling to answer the scary question of how we maintain social welfare and community cohesion in a low-to-no growth world. We in the third sector therefore need to think about this too. We have this rather smug tendency to think we have the answers, many of which involve large dollops of 'investment'. But we are often fighting the last war. Indeed, most charities' staff, services and programmes still reflect the relatively benign conditions of the past decade - not the long, hard road ahead. Our present task is therefore, somehow, to reboot in the face of a very different set of conditions.

So what are our options? The first thing is that we must be utterly realistic. Things are not going to right themselves in only a few years. We won't just muddle through, as Debra Allcock Tyler implied in this column recently. We have to think very clearly about where we focus our resources, given that social problems are likely to snowball. This means putting resources into the people and places where need is most profound.

In practice, it means we get used to downsizing, merging and providing a lot more online. Smaller organisations are the new reality. We also need far fewer chief executives and senior people - and more responsibility at the front line, where we need fewer, better people who can operate independently. In short, we need a shake-out.

We're already seeing a lot of sensible activity. The best sector leaders are refocusing their organisations, letting a lot of people go and collaborating on a much deeper level than was possible in the past. Consolidation, refocusing or merger seems to be a live conversation in many charities these days. For those that can't bear to merge, there are alternatives. Like councils, charities can share a chief executive, a management team or a back office. That way they keep the brand, lose the bother of creating a single new identity and save hundreds of thousands of pounds into the bargain.

All of this will be very painful. So who is going to make it happen? Probably not those who came of age in a more benign era. We need a changing of the guard - new mindsets and real energy for what needs to be done next. This is not the stuff of swansongs. Instead it's high time for a lot of people to take a look in the mirror and consider their positions.

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