The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.
Habit #5: are you making room in your organisation, strategies and conversations for the experience of the people you serve?
The phrase ‘nothing about us, without us’ is familiar, and few civil society leaders would disagree that their work must be firmly anchored in people’s real lives. It was popularised by disability campaigners in the 1990s, but SMK has found real concern amongst change-makers that our sector has made so little progress in turning this principle into reality over the past thirty years.
Collaboration with people in pursuit of social change is often confined to discreet functions, such as campaigns or policy, with no clear links to the whole. One staff or budget change can leave them stranded as the organisation moves on and no longer ‘needs’ them. This does little to build the trust or agency of the people you work with and will not tackle long-term and systemic barriers they might face.
According to Baljeet Sandhu in The Value of Lived Experience in Social Change, while there is widespread appreciation of these ideas, ‘sharing power with experts by experience is rare, whilst excluding them from decision-making processes is common’.
To achieve truly transformational change there must truly be a sharing of power. It’s about giving people the tools to change and devolving the power and resources to do it. That won’t happen just because people were allowed to ‘tell their story’ (often sanitised by well-meaning communicators) or invited to a campaigning workshop.
Imagine, for a moment, an organisation whose agenda is directly, transparently and continuously informed by the people it was created to serve. Which employs and trains those people. Which recruits them to boards and steering groups. Which invests in them as leaders.
It would have their experiences threaded through its DNA. It would be very clear whose interests it served. Its voice would be authentic. It would build the power of the very community it existed to support.
Those organisations exist, though many are small and currently struggling to stay afloat. Where people feel that society is failing them, and can find nowhere to turn, some will become ‘accidental campaigners’ themselves or found their own small charities.
Imagine then that the larger, better networked and (frankly) richer organisations that work in the same communities made a commitment to building mutually beneficial relationships with smaller groups. The practical implications are immense, but the benefits could be greater – not least because of what larger organisations would learn about working meaningfully with people who want to improve their lives, health, neighbourhood or rights.
If there’s a challenge here, it’s largely about time and space (and, therefore, money). Genuinely putting people’s ‘lived experience’ at the centre of all you do will require dedication, experimentation, collaboration and trust. Are you ready, as a leader, to make room for this to happen? To be honest with funders and donors about why you need to do this to fulfil your mission? To be comfortable with being unable to set measures of success in advance, but let them be defined by the people you serve as you progress? To make sure that, once you have made room, the right people are included – not just those paid or able to show up?
Previous blog in the series: Habit #4, persistence, perseverance and resilience