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The one constant in these changing times

In Caron Bradshaw's speech at the CFG Annual Dinner this November and shared here, Caron reflects on the changing political climate, and why we must not forget our focus on public interest and public benefit.

Post byCaron Bradshaw

We live in changeable and unpredictable times.

This time last year who would have thought that not only would the first deadline for Brexit have passed, but that the second and then third deadlines would have too?

The recent past has highlighted not just the challenges inherent in our democratic structures but also the ease with which opinions can be divided.

I don’t need to tell you that this changing political environment has impacted our sector too. We have been wrestling with some tough questions. We’ve had reviews and enquiries on the future of civil society, new ministers a plenty and we’ve had to navigate a very challenging economic climate.

There has been lots of change. But there has been one constant that has given me cause to feel increasingly uncomfortable - a narrative that underpins our sector. This narrative, which lurks in the background, like a saboteur, is public ‘trust’.

No please don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe that the sector must be trustworthy, after all it features in CFG’s own purpose statement. We should aim for the highest standards of conduct and behaviour, act in the public interest and deliver public benefit. We should do no harm.

However, I have a real problem with the continued focus on trust driven solely by what the public say they want and how much they say they trust charities in any given moment. It assumes that what the public wants is in the public interest and will deliver public benefit, and that if we are not trusted it is because we are not trustworthy.

I believe instead we should be focussing on public interest and ‘public benefit’. The public interest is something that transcends popular opinions. It is about the good of society, the welfare and well-being of the general public.

We all know that the value to society which flows from charity is so much more than financial. There is recognition that charities play an important role in social cohesion, wellbeing and civic engagement.

In the current environment, thinking about charity as a solution to the deep economic and social divides that exist in our society is a must. Charity is at the heart of society.

This isn’t about us arrogantly sitting in judgement and telling our beneficiaries we know best. Public interest isn't about charities being paternalistic or what the privileged do to those in need. It’s also not about trying to please everyone. The spaces we occupy and the causes we serve will be inherently uncomfortable and even offensive to some.

Our beneficiaries may not be seen as deserving and that may mean some parts of society judge our work to be unworthy in their eyes. To quote Julia Unwin, ‘Charities are born from anger and a desire for change.’ That anger and drive to change the status quo may not be welcomed.

We are not a comfortable or easy sector. We are hard, challenging and difficult. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that our future is entirely dependent on this subjective notion of trust.

The wicked problems society faces will not be effectively resolved on the cheap yet we continue to be pressed for ‘low cost or no cost’ solutions. We are told that we cannot be trusted because we waste resources or because our answer to political challenges is to hold out our begging bowl and ask for more.

Forgive me - but is any other sector penalised for setting out its stall? If you don’t ask you don’t get. We must keep asking.

Trust or the supposed lack of it is being used to keep us in check. To silence our complaints and inhibit us from speaking truth to power. To keep us so worried about what the public might think that we keep our heads below the parapet and stick to our knitting. We’ve got to stop being complicit in this narrative. We must speak up. We owe it to those we serve.

A fundamental shift is required which will need investment and radical change, whoever gets in (or whichever coalition of parties forms the next government).

A new flavour of government won't necessarily bring an easier narrative to work with, a sudden injection of funding or a realisation that politicians need to focus more on kindness and compassion if we are to rebuild confidence in politics.

It’s a simplistic notion that we should respond to what the public wants and it is a flawed assertion that the public alone should be able to set the parameters of what it should mean to be a charity.

Together we should push back. So in the run-up to the election and beyond let’s refocus on our work, public interest and what we do for public benefit. And let’s leave the pursuit of popularity and polls on trust to the celebrities and politicians.

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