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Rethinking the future

CFG's CEO, Caron Bradshaw OBE, shares her thoughts on the future of the economy and the sustainability of infrastructure bodies following the closure of Children England.

A few years ago, I had a very challenging conversation with a close connection about the damage being done to the fabric of society by the relentless pursuit of financial wealth and the failure to value things that, ironically, lead to its very creation.

He asserted that I was a 'liberal lefty' who didn’t understand how economics worked; that it was people like him, who ran businesses and created wealth, that enabled people like me, the ‘do-gooders’, to exist.

I felt then, like I have been feeling until now, ‘what’s the point?’ in trying to persuade him to think differently.

However, watching a spectacular organisation, whose work I admire and whose CEO has few intellectual equals, announce its closure this month, has made me think that there is every point to pushing for a major shift in how things are done, before it’s too late.

I reference, of course, Children England. Few would argue that it hasn't carried out hugely important work not least of which is the incredible Childfair state project – and has added value to its members and beyond. Their work was and is needed.

But I think that what we may lose when it closes is not just work that is important to the children’s sector and to charity infrastructure but, if we are not careful, an ambassador for thinking differently.

You see Kathy Evans, the CEO, didn’t just provide drive and inspiration to her own organisation and its members, she also asked some huge questions of us all about how economies work and how politicians, of all persuasions, need to think again on many of their policies.

As Kathy wrote: 'investing our precious time and effort in winnable tweaks and policy word games just won’t do’.

Kathy has spoken publicly and privately about the unhelpfulness of thinking about public finances in terms of a household budget and the many flaws in the current approach to the economy. In her quite wonderful blog post announcing closure (if you’ve not read it, do), Kathy recounted her picture of the economy scribbled on a paper tablecloth.

It is an image of interconnectedness of the obvious and the subtle. It’s a picture of an ecosystem, in which each player has value, and on which any thriving economy survives. An ecosystem which, just like the climate, has suffered from a focus on short-term extraction for the benefit of a few to the exclusion of pretty much all else.

I am not sure at which point in history we lost our way. When did the benefits of economic productivity for all, at the heart of capitalism, switch into mere extraction of shareholder return?

When did it become okay for multimillionaires like Australia’s Tim Gurner to say that productivity is low because of arrogance in the labour market, where workers ‘decided they didn’t really want to work that much’ and that employees need to know that they are lucky to have an employer and not the other way around?

The economy, like our planet, is beginning to visibly suffer from the legacy of this short-term, ‘take what you can’ and only value that to which you can ascribe a monetary value, attitude. It is starting to cause the fabric of society to sunder.

When the way to reduce inflation is to hike interest rates, suppress the housing market and drive-up unemployment, we truly have a broken system. It hurts the most disadvantaged in society the most and it kills fabulous organisations like Children England.

I’m no economist, but I believe that we must move to a more thrivable and social form of capitalism. If the last 15 years have taught us anything it is that you can no more cut your way to prosperity than you can fight your way to peace.

Different political choices, longer-term thinking, and root and branch redesign is required (and sadly lacking in current political discourse) from all political colours. The work currently being done by SEUK on rethinking the economy is exactly the kind of conversation that must become mainstream.

There needs to be a switch back to value creation and away from extraction. A recognition that market forces are a false god. Governments are happy to bail out banks, and water companies and businesses too big to fail whilst also peddling ‘market forces’. These are sticking plasters that simply can’t stem the haemorrhage.

And what of charitable infrastructure itself?

Children England and CFG have in common that we’re infrastructure bodies. We know from personal experience that demonstrating our contributions to the economy and society is even more difficult than for frontline charities because we exist to support and facilitate the work of others.

In terms of market forces our organisations were created to meet a demand from charities to:

  • Deliver their impact more efficiently and effectively
  • prevent those charities from each having to reinvent the wheel every five minutes
  • pick up themes and emerging trends, across a wide range of organisations of different shapes and sizes, which make the lives of those engaging with the sector from law makers to contractors easier
  • coordinate and campaign on issues where solidarity lends weight and being once removed from the representation affords protection

But whilst demand may have led to our creation, it may not always sustain it. I recall chatting to Kathy about second and third-tier organisations in other sectors (public, private, royal chartered, unions etc).

One key element of success she observed, and the key to the most lasting ones was property ownership and deeded assets, not member numbers. In other words, not market forces. And I think she’s right.

Children England and CFG, in fact most of our sector’s infrastructure, may be in high demand, with growing membership, but without this foundation of an asset base we are fundamentally less resilient.

Children England isn’t the first organisation to succumb. And sadly it won’t be the last. But as Kathy has said:

'If we are reduced to rubble should we set about rebuilding it exactly as it was before, from the same shattered bricks… or do you invest energy, money and excitement in rebuilding something new and better in the same place, but with better materials, more accessible and functional designs, learning every lesson you can about what led the previous one to collapse (and centering those for whom it never worked in the first place)?'

I sincerely hope we think again.


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