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If we don’t collaborate better now, we risk being left behind

Shelter CEO Polly Neate reflects on the findings and recommendations of the Rebalancing the Relationship report.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

The charity sector is shaken. There’s a lot of talk about opportunities arising from the pandemic, mainly because of the local, community-based activities that have undoubtedly been pretty wonderful. Notwithstanding, for very many charities the last year has seen them overwhelmed, underfunded, undervalued and misunderstood. And on top of that, many of us have rightly been prompted into a reality check on how we live our much-vaunted values due to the Black Lives Matter protests.

It feels as though the Rebalancing the Relationship project was launched on another planet. We thought we faced challenges then, but I can’t help a wry smile as I write that. However, if there are opportunities out of all this, they will probably require us to work together, which means our relationships are more important than ever.

In my experience, organisations are rarely on their best behaviour when they feel insecure. I can certainly think of times when I’ve caught myself instinctively defending territory instead of sharing, and they were all times when things felt uncertain. So this project is probably more needed than ever.

It was a privilege to be part of the project steering group. But I have to say I was taken aback by the defensiveness of large charities when approached about the project. A common complaint was that the project’s remit was framed as though it was mainly large charities that need to change their behaviour. Well yes! That victim complex which privilege so often creates was much in evidence. And I fear it may make large charities reluctant to take on our recommendations. Let’s hope not.

It’s true that there are preconceptions about large charities out there, particularly at local level, that get in the way of partnerships. We’ve experienced it at Shelter, even in areas where we have a long history of respectful and generous partnership with small charities. Yes, it’s frustrating, and I hope small charities will increasingly give us the benefit of the doubt. But we also have to accept that the risky circumstances that make us feel defensive make small charities even more so. We have much to lose; they have everything to lose. And while many large charities are still willing to swoop in and take it all (and yes, we see you, it’s still happening), we can’t expect perceptions to shift. Let’s just keep on earning trust, because the benefits, as this project has shown, are huge, not just for us but for the people who need us. And, I believe, for a more secure future for our sector.

As a sector, we depend absolutely on public trust, and that trust can be fragile and must also be earned. Unless we trust each other, I don’t think we will increase public confidence. That means being honest about competition where it exists, and neither over-promising nor handing out unequal or unreasonable expectations based on power – large organisations have a right to keep commercially sensitive information to themselves, but so do small ones, for example.

The qualities of a collaborative organisation, as identified by this project, are reasonable. Unarguable actually. They do not ask us to run unmanageable risks. But if we – and by this I particularly mean large charities, let’s be honest – don’t take a long hard look at ourselves in the light of the Rebalancing the Relationship report, we run risks that impact far more widely than just our own organisations.

If we don’t collaborate better now, we risk being left behind, stuck in old habits, increasingly irrelevant and mistrusted in a world that has moved on far more dramatically than we ever dreamed at the start of this project. These are scary times because we know we can’t go back, yet we don’t know what’s ahead. A map is coming together though, and the findings of this project are part of it.

Our sector as a whole is set back by poor relationships: by small charities mistrusting the motives of large charities without evidence, and by large charities making negative assumptions about the capability of small charities, to cite two of the most common prejudices we encountered. Especially when that mistrust and those assumptions are visible to commissioners or other partners. Frankly, what the sector needs is to agree to accept the findings of this project and move on.

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Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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