Thursday, 19 January 2017

Is there a science of charity, and would we want one?

A few months ago Joe Saxton, Driver of Ideas at nfpSynergy, wrote a thought-provoking blog challenging our sector’s enthusiasm for randomised control trials. Joe’s article and the debate started in the comments, were fascinating and deserve a read. But it prompted consideration of the question one step removed – before we look at charities borrowing science’s tools, is it appropriate to compare charitable and scientific worlds?

Randomised control trials are the current highest point of evidence collection in the scientific method, a method whose genesis is hundreds of years old and whose structure is supported by countless examples of error, trial, error, improvement. When scientists operate, their experiments rest not just on the shoulders of giants, but on the backs of a pyramid of giants, trolls, charlatans and visionaries. Science learns from itself, from its mistakes, around the globe and across the centuries.

The scientific method demands that results be replicable, and expects an important experiment will be run by entirely different people time and again. Science has operated for decades within the infrastructure of the academic world, with a host of peer review journals and challenging conventions, allowing distant practitioners to test the validity of claims and build on success. Rivals and successors pore over datasets, read failed experiments and negative results, perfect techniques. The world has far more STEM graduates than experts in charitable operation or social policy research. The sector’s main notable academic journal is that of the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Open Research. It is excellent, and it is, of course, a science journal.
This is not the only difference. Science and technology are wedded more firmly to economic progress. 

Shareholders, government, hospital directors and the public take note of new drugs, stem cell breakthroughs, rumours of groundbreaking green energy generators. Charity practitioners have nowhere near this level of awareness – not because we are lazy or intellectually inferior, but because we have no such support structure or history of sharing. Too often in the charity sector, it is not just a case of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing: it is two fingers on the same hand each reaching out to grasp the same object and still failing join up.

In the corporate world, certainly in the boardrooms of pharmaceutical and tech companies, directors are inquisitive and acquisitive. There are aware of all their competitors’ projects, what newcomers try, innovation springing up in far-flung corners, blossoming SMEs. They are not only concerned with keeping their own company afloat but with exploring expansion on the frontier. They have teams of researchers comparing clusters of studies and meta-analyses to scope opportunity. They are supported by both the academic literature and by business media – the Financial Times and rolling TV news. Likewise they have a worldwide network of business schools, economics departments, management courses, decades of theories on effective leadership and proactive governance.

There are of course a great number of collaboration efforts in the charity sector, from the Good Exchange to the concept of “generous leadership”, from joint initiatives between funder organisations and umbrella bodies to local projects in the same town or village. One of Charity Futures’ ambitions is to compile a directory of these, listing free and paid resources on charity academia, leadership and governance training, and emergency support. Hopefully by signposting both collaborations and smaller ventures, even more efficient partnerships can be forged. This could grow in utility by adding neutral reviews and learning aids, so a bewildered new board member could easily find out the different tools available to help her.

The other difference between science and voluntary worlds is simply that a lot of charities do not operate in a manner with quantifiable results. The goal of some is to enable a sport to be played, or to make a group’s life more tolerable, hopefully enjoyable. There are sector activities which suit social science measurements, like helping ex-prisoners reintegrate or educating children, but a host of important charitable activities are little to do with numbers. Has enough thought been devoted to testing an ethical component, are quality-adjusted life years enough?

Trying to get a picture of impact by asking beneficiaries to rate their experiences feels like missing the point, even if methodologies were sound enough that they could be compared across location and type – which they aren’t. Some of the largest management consultancies have been trying for years to set out a standardised system to rate charity effectiveness and each model sinks on its flaws. What the voluntary sector does brilliantly is use hard science evidence in campaigning – against smoking near children for example – and funds investigation of this type. But that does not contribute to a central corpus on how charities themselves campaign.

The question of randomised control trials speaks to the charity bubble’s current focus on, possibly even obsession with, transparency and impact. You get the sense that many charity leaders believe that if we could only display our accounts and give hard numbers on how many people we’re helping, then the public and press would return to treating all charities as angelic.

This is a limp hope. Few people have the time or inclination to check the accounts and annual statements that charities painstakingly polished, even fewer compare different possible donations in such detail. Even if they do, they may not have the statistical grounding to make informed decisions, or may leave with the wrong message, that all the charities they compared spend too much on staffing, premises, IT and training. Certainly the sector should not retreat on transparency, but nor should it slog on under the delusion that once we reach a certain crystal-clear level, the public will fall in love.

Another difference charities may be more happy about. The sector is far less regulated, and while the Charity Commission comes down hard on some charities and may be seen as too bureaucratic, it pales in comparison to pharmaceutical watchdogs. We have nothing that functions like the FDA/MHRA testing and delaying new drugs for years. The Charity Commission does not review every new project, grant or intervention that a charity plans, not even very large experiments. Likewise most donors or funders would not be able to block a charity functioning.

Try as we might we cannot create a ready-made academic milieu for the voluntary sector, with the centuries of history, the international network of journals, the expectation of challenge, refinement and peer review. Multi-institutional multi-national collaborations do not spring up overnight, but after years of relationship building, sharing techniques and ethics, agreeing shared goals. But this is certainly a goal to have in mind: through thought leadership, debate, seminars and working with the university sector across disciplines, we must strive to introduce higher standards of intellectual rigour and collective progress.

This article first appeared in Third Sector magazine, here


Sir Stephen Bubb is Director of Charity Futures. Jonathan Lindsell is the Research & Programme Manager of Charity Futures.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

What would the National Trustees body do?

The national survey of trustees conducted by the Charity Futures programme, Third Sector, and nfpSynergy indicated strong support for a new national trustees body. It follows that we should consider what such a body should actually do. It should have clear aims and a distinct role not already covered by NCVO, ACEVO, or the Association of Chairs. NCVO already has a governance department, and ACEVO ran a governance review service: there is also the Governance Hub, which produces the Code of Good Governance, which includes input from a whole host of bodies.

Many sector commentators already complain that there are too many infrastructure bodies. Only with a very defined purpose, funding structure, and place in the conversation would a trustees body enjoy wides support. It is not jumping the gun to hypothesise what role such a body should take. Fully 25% of our respondents thought that “a national body supporting trustees” would be “very useful”, while another 36% thought it would be “useful”.

The question did not imagine what that support might consist of. Different respondents likely interpreted it in different ways, projecting their own ideas about infrastructure support onto the question. Such a body could do any number of things, and the questions we had posed just prior to the one concerning trustees bodies probably affected what respondents were thinking: they included online training, better general training, trustee handbooks, and a trustee e-newsletter or group. There was most supports, 82% positive responses, to the generic idea of “Better training for trustees”, which doesn’t get us far.

How would such training be delivered? Seminars, workshops, awaydays, off-line courses? Would we have online video lecture series, mentorship programs, a grand centre delivering cutting-edge governance literature? How much extra time are trustees willing to devote to self-improvement? Would it be useful to have more governance appraisal services, provided at an affordable rate? Would funders and philanthropists have a more contributory role? Can charity boards learn from the composition and practices of the private and public sectors? If such a body did spring into being, how would it communicate with the public what it was trying to do, and assess whether it bolstered third sector leadership?

All of the ideas above feel worthwhile but uninspiring. A few hours of tuition or a quickly forgotten best practice document won’t have the impact we want. We need a body that is seen, unlike the Charity Commission, as a mentor, not a monitor. Perhaps there are many more innovations to come, or perhaps a carefully crafted mixture of the options above is the best that can be done.

The weighty challenge of governance demands joined-up big thinking. Marginal improvements and small scale initiatives on their own won’t be enough. They need to be set in this wider context, or small-fry thinking might become a habit. It would be a disaster if the mentality that can only justify minor interventions seeps into how foundations fund capacity. So the answer may well lie outside the sector and certainly may be about big philanthropy.

Trustee concerns reflect our sector’s broader problem themes. There remains a tendency to think too narrowly, e.g. contemplating governance simply as a question of trustees and processes, failing to recognise that it is as much to do with values and cultures – about how organisations are governed. That governing covers executive and staff behaviour, not just board meetings. Governance geeks, who just focus on the minutiae of process, are not only wrong; they are dangerous. They risk driving out the passionate spirit which (alongside professionalism) should be the sector’s hallmark. 

These are all issues that will need to be mulled over, indeed considered in great detail, before anyone dives ahead. But this work can be really valuable if we arrive at the right answer, or even as an answer that is mostly right. If we improve whole sector governance by a small margin in back-office, unsexy ways, this would translate into an imperceptible rise in quality of our whole sector’s operations. Intervening upstream to avert another Kids Company, pre-empt an Age UK or resolve a Terence Higgins Trust situation before it became an emergency: that would be a great boon to the sector. More, helping each board that had been merely muddling along, keeping their charity afloat, to really strive and explore how to deliver the very best: that is worth spending time to work out.


This is why, without any doubt, Charity Futures is now shaping up to be more than a two year journey - Woodford Investment and I are in this longer term. But perhaps our most important contribution – at least in the early years - will be to encourage others to join us in asking these questions and looking for answers. We will become clearer with time, and this gives us our best chance of delivering something meaningful.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Surveying the landscape: how do trustees feel?

For all the talk about charity leadership and governance, we actually know very little about what board volunteers think, what their training and backgrounds are, how they experience their roles. Past attempts to reinforce the quality of those guiding our sector have, in effect, been crafted half-blind. No wonder they have not always had the hoped-for impact.
That is why, with nfpSynergy and Third Sector magazine, Charity Futures has run the first comprehensive national trustees survey. We’ve been asking board members how confident they are in their own groups’ skills, what challenges they face, what support they receive and what are the best new ideas for support they’ll actually use.  By using social media, Third Sector’s readership and ACEVO’s member list, we’ve achieved a good snapshot of charities large and small, wealthy and modest, old and new.
Our results – together with choice commentary from yours truly - will be out next Wednesday. The survey promises to push the charity leadership conversation forwards and help us beef up the back office.
And on 22 November, we are holding a seminar with a range of sector experts on governance to help us digest these results and look at next steps. This is all part of our efforts to discuss widely with people and organisations to get their views on what an initiative in governance might look like and how it might work (and indeed who might fund it!) 


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Speaking truth to power, part II

As I have blogged just recently, it is often said that one of the core duties of a charity is "to speak truth to power". It’s a phrase that originated with the Quakers in the 18th century. The charge that they were given to speak was threefold:
  • To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace,
  • To the  people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority,
  • To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on life.
There is an obvious link between the work of the Church and faith groups, and the work of charities in acting as the moral conscience of the country and a thorn in the side of the powerful on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Of course this sometimes means we are both attacked by Governments and politicians who argue we have no business playing politics. Former Archbishop Williams has talked of the "illiteracy" of many politicians about our role and this is but an example of that. If Christ turfed the money changers from the Temple, would the Churches not be failing in their duty if they did not point to the gap between the wealthiest in our society and the poorest? Is that not true for charities?

It is sometimes argued that charities should "stick to the knitting". In other words we should run soup kitchens or food banks for the poor but keep our mouths shut about the causes of poverty. Fortunately neither the Church nor charities will cease from these essential roles; both delivering services to vulnerable people and the most damaged communities and holding those in power to account. 
Cardinal Nichols' trenchant criticism of the effects on communities of welfare changes is a powerful example of the role Church leaders can play and one to be applauded. The work of churches of all denominations and other faiths is also a great example of community cohesion. Our Muslim communities have a strong and abiding charitable tradition that mirrors that of the Christian tradition. So the example being set by Archbishop Longley and other faith groups in Birmingham offering the Muslim community solidarity is another example of the role Churches can play in fostering stronger communities.

Historically the link between faith and charity is strong and continues to be binding. Charitable giving is one of the core duties of a Christian. From early times the Church has encouraged and supported charities. Indeed many of the earliest charities were run directly by the Church. One of ACEVO’s members, the CEO of St. John's Hospital in Bath, is running an institution set up by the monks and which, as they say, "through centuries of change (…) has remained true to its purpose. Founded in the 12th century it is still providing comfort in old age for those in need." Pope Innocent III in 1215 gave a letter of authorisation for the collection of alms, writing, "with works of great mercy and for the sake of things eternal so sow on earth what we should gather in heaven, The Lord returning it with increased fruit."


Many of our great national charities have their roots deep in the founding impetus of the Church; the children’s charities: Barnado’s, the Children’s Society and Action for Children are cases in point. One of the earliest hospices in the country, St Joseph’s in Hackney, was founded by the Sisters of the Poor. The work of the great international NGOs such as Caritas, Cafod and Christian Aid is sustained by the faithful and not simply through giving but through active support for their campaigning role; to mention just one example of that, "Make Poverty History".
So, at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor remains so large, we need a renewed sense of purpose between the Churches and charities in our common goal of giving voice to the voiceless. Similarly faith groups and charities continue their work in providing care and welfare services for those in need. Our role is growing as the State draws back from provision. Often this is because of an increasing understanding of the role of citizen and community focused charities, but also because the deep funding cuts demanded by austerity have eaten significantly into the safety net of our welfare state. That role will continue to grow and with it the much greater responsibilities that entailed. And as Archbishop Longley reminded ACEVO members in his speech to us, poverty encompasses so much more than just worldly goods. As he said, "poverty includes isolation, loneliness, fear in one's environment, being deprived of opportunities and lacking a voice". So we have that common purpose in delivering basic support and care as well as speaking out.

When the translators of the King James Bible were examining the Latin texts for the famous injunction of 1 Corinthians 13.13, there was much debate on the term "caritas". Modern translations use "love" but the King James scholars stuck to charity. Just a few years before they were deliberating, there was also debate on the role of charities which led to the great 1601 Statute of Elizabeth on Charitable Uses. I like to think they eschewed the use of "love" for charity as it is in charitable actions and approaches that we demonstrate the love we must have for one another and for God.
"And there abideth faith, hope, charity; these three, but the greatest of these is charity"

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Speaking truth to power - or whispering?


Our sector is supposed to pride itself on its ability to "speak truth to power" but frankly at the moment you would be hard pressed to see many examples of it.

I was proud to be part of the marvellous coalition of organisations that fought the Lobbying Act and made such a change to it. We also worked closely with our colleagues to fight the nonsense of the contract gagging clauses that still lurk around Rob Wilson's in tray. But the reality is that the real threat to the sector is our own self-censorship. 

In the big debates of the moment you would need to look hard to find the charity leaders’ voice. On Brexit for example we took a craven line in the referendum debate and now are failing to effectively challenge the rise of xenophobia and hate crime. There are honourable exceptions of course, and the organisations promoting the cause of migrants and refugees is a great one, but by and large we have failed to come together to promote the tolerance and inclusivity that our sector espouses. Where for example was the voice of the sector denouncing the appalling "foreigner employees" speech of Amber Rudd? 

Then we come to the horrendous crisis in our health and social care system. This strikes at the heart of where our sector has traditionally been active. Many, many third sector bodies are prominent in service delivery and advocacy. What is happening with the care of the frail elderly in hospitals around the country is scandalous. I have seen this at first hand with my father who has just spent over two months in hospital, where I have seen the strains on the system. 

Chris Hopson, who speaks for NHS providers, has been a great example of someone prepared to tell the truth publicly about the crisis. On Monday we had Jeremy Hunt on the radio denying there is a problem and insisting that the planned cuts – so-called efficiency savings – will go ahead. This is disastrous, and anyone who knows what is happening in A&E or in the care system realises the need for more resources. 

But where are the sector leaders in the media pointing out the crisis we face? Demanding action? There is a curious silence when we need a voice. Sometimes leaders think you work behind the scenes to get action and don't use the media. This is a wrong approach. 

The media is an essential ally and a great negotiating tool. The media is not a nasty thing you wheel out when all else has failed. Politicians respond when they feel there is public pressure and concern.  Thinking you can make change through discussion and meetings alone can be a flawed approach. A judicious use of media to give voice to genuine concern, to articulate what beneficiaries are experiencing and to demand action, is part of the process of getting action. Hopson has brilliantly shown how this is done by exploiting media on behalf of his NHS provider members whilst engaging seriously with them on solutions. Politicians and ministers, and therefore officials, respond when there is a crisis and you are there both demanding action publicly, and there to offer a solution. But they also need to fear you. A charity leader uses media to extract change because people trust us and listen to us and that is something many politicians don't have.
But there is a second and perhaps more fundamental reason why we need the media.  A charity is not there simply to deliver a service or act as an agent of the State.  Our beneficiaries want someone to champion them and articulate their concerns and demand change. They want to hear that. They want to see it.  We are not simply there to work behind the scenes, necessary though that is as well, but to speak truth to power in a way that reassures our beneficiaries that we are on the case. 



I'm afraid Theresa May is deeply unengaged in the current crisis and will not until she starts hearing us on Today or the front page of the Mail or top of the news. The NHS didn't do the pilots in A&E two years ago simply because I presented Government with a neat paper. They did it because they feared the damage a winter crisis could do. We have failed to capitalise on that. Never fall for the trap governments set when they tell you won't get anywhere if you go to the press. That secures compliance, not action. 

I'm reflecting what I am seeing in the media and also on 15 years of working with politicians and getting results. When the Blair government wanted to make a major policy impact on charities, Number 10 was able to ignore many sector leaders. Those that were consulted – myself included – were those whose public backing was vital to success, and whose public opposition in the press could have been a serious thorn in the side. A charity leader needs to be in a position where they are too dangerous to ignore, and they can provide answers to sort major problems.


Bob Kerslake, former chief of the Home Civil Service, was quoted in Civil Society last week, pointing to the power of the sector and to remember we are more powerful than politicians. He sums up my position brilliantly:

"You have to stand apart and have an independent voice, and in my experience in government they respect those who stand up and challenge even if they don’t like it. The worst thing you can be seen to do is cower in front of government because, eventually, they will get you.”

Friday, 16 September 2016

Charity leadership and existential crisis

It’s no fun to think about the apocalypse, and even less fun to think about slow-moving threats to our civilisations. Countering both is nevertheless a key task, one that cannot forever be put off until tomorrow. It may sound a grand claim, but charities are absolutely at the forefront of unearthing and delivering solutions to these macro-scale events. For this reason, their leadership really needs to be the same calibre, their governance the same quality, as other sectors boast.

Take the old age crisis. In a few decades the ballooning size of the over-70 population will have changed the landscape of the state, with Britain, America, Japan and Germany especially affected. Pensions will not go far enough to cover the elderly’s living costs, let alone inflated health bills. To hope to maintain the standard of life to which Western citizens are accustomed, there need to be structural changes in the tax, welfare, community and health sectors. Public policy gurus are flummoxed.

Charity is already at the vanguard of innovation and best practice in the different aspects of responding to this challenge. Local or national, charities are exploring innovations promoting better care, whether that be social or residential. Charities provide important services for the elderly – medical help, mobility assistance, backing to personal independence, and a supportive community. They coordinate volunteers to aid those in trouble, help fight loneliness, and just bring a bit of human warmth.

Taking a wider view, our largest charities are crucial drivers of medical research and technological advancement, whether that be treatments, live-extension innovations or palliative breakthroughs. Charity funding is behind possible solutions to protracted problems including stem cells, genome mapping and nanotechnology.

There are further existential threats that come from antibiotics losing effectiveness. Scientists hope to find new powerful antibiotics in unexplored areas of the world such as rainforests, where biodiversity is robust: third sector activism and funding protects these areas, aids exploration, and seeks to conserve nature. A linked issue is food shortage: if pollinators like bees, bats and insects suffer catastrophic population decline through climate change, or global warming affects water and soil quality, human crops would fail. Conservation efforts to protect wildlife ecosystems and vulnerable areas across the world help stave off this possibility.

Society can also be imperilled by intercommunity violence, civil strife or terror. Work to help neighbours and those of different faiths and ethnicities live happily and cooperate is a central task of many UK charities.  Some of our most active voluntary bodies strive to help refugees and migrants fit in through language assistance, cultural integration and neighbourliness. This important work forms part of the bedrock for our cohesive British landscape.

It’s clear then that charities play imperative roles in acting to counter each of these major hazards, and lobbying states to take effective action against them, and leading the way in researching best practice. This underlines the need for excellent governance across the board. Voluntary sector leaders and those responsible for charities are not minor players, but chain links in society’s armour.


 We need them to be the best they can be.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Our ancient charities

One of the oldest charities in the country is Sherburn House in County Durham.  It was founded in 1181 by a wise and forward thinking Bishop Pudsey of Durham; he also gave them lands that still generate income for this great charity today. It consists of a care home, almshouses and other facilities, as well as a grants programme for the county. It even has its own Act of Parliament under Elizabeth I, passed in 1585 (which came about as a result of some past fraud, nothing new there then!) 



I visited recently and had a great day meeting with the CEO Pauline Bishop and key members of staff, as well as looking around the site and meeting with the trustees. It was fascinating to see the old chapel, still functioning as an integral part of the charity, and they even have their own chaplain (a woman, so they may be ancient but they are up to date theologically). There is an old plaque in the chapel marking the tomb of a former chaplain who, the plaque proclaims, preached to King Edward VI. They even have their own cemetery and a lovely woodland surrounds the site. I was shown the Elizabethan chalice and flagons and patten from the 18th century, which are part of the treasures of the charity.




The trustees are considering how to update their governance arrangements and they very well understood the need for good governance in the light of all the recent publicity. They have their own history of problems and misdemeanours in the past and are clear they wish to be a model of good practice so, for example they are looking at the number of trustees they have, currently 16, terms of office, and the knotty issue of trustees who are nominated by other organisations and therefore may not always feel their responsibility lies with the charity rather than the nominating body.  I've come across this issue before and whilst the legal position is clear, i.e. you must put the charity interest above that of your nominating body, this is often not the reality.

We often forget that our country has a magnificent and proud history of charity, dating back to at least the 7th century. Many of our old charities have their origins in the Church but have reformed and moved with the times, but are still serving their beneficiaries in the way that Bishop Pudsey envisaged some 900 years ago. 


We should celebrate our great history. At some stage in my life I intend to write a history of charity. There is nothing around since the 60s accounts written by Harvard professors. We need a proper history. I'm collecting the material gradually and have even spent a month in archives in the Bodleian in Oxford and at Lambeth Palace. It's a project for my retirement, though that is years off I'm afraid.