Over several weeks, I have identified some weaknesses in common third sector worldviews. Whilst I generalise, these are real issues we must understand. In this post, I shall show why it is important to support the strengths of third sector organisations.
At its best a group of concerned citizens can act quickly to support a cause, eg a disadvantaged group. Is the statutory sector better equipped to tackle the problem? Maybe but politicians can take time to name the problem, plan and respond.
There are many issues where the state is unlikely to respond. Climate change is an example. Many vested interests groups lobby politicians. Concerned citizens, who campaign and experiment, may be the first response before an issue becomes established policy.
For many issues, the self-help group is a good starting point; finding others who share their problem and can share their solutions or experiences. There is no question these have been effective in bringing about real change.
But the problem is the organisational structures available to these groups, especially if they generate significant income, employ staff or occupy premises.
The basic structures of registered charity and company status are hardly fit for purpose and whilst there are a few new options designed for social enterprises, they are still a poor fit to the needs of these groups. The reason is they were designed for businesses and so don’t meet the needs of groups made up of mostly volunteers who are occasionally involved.
Much the same can be said about the legal structures for mutuals. Industrial and Provident legislation dates back to the nineteenth century and is even more complex than conventional incorporation.
However, values are important and mutuals match the values of the third sector more closely than the values of charitable status or company status. The problem is few organisations practice mutuality and so many of its features are forgotten.
There was a time when small groups would naturally form a mutual or friendly society. These self-help groups practiced a range of experiments leading to the social and economic institutions we use today, eg building societies and insurance companies. People need to work together for mutual benefit. Their investments need to be protected and their structures simple.
I have argued in this blog mutuality is the key to developing new ideas. Once understood, mutuality inspires people to see new possibilities through collaboration. Collaboration can be between organisations too, they don’t have to be mutuals.
Which leads me to the main strength of the third sector, which is the opportunity to experiment with alternative lifestyles and approaches. It is one of my basic observations in community development that “Most things don’t work”.
But the few things that do work can have implications far beyond their first reach. The only way I know to find innovative approaches that work is to try them. These social experiments will mostly fail but it’s worth it for the ones that work out.
But what do we mean by fail? Receiving large grants that lead to mission creep, some success and then loss of the work when the grants run out is a dispiriting failure. Perhaps creative inspiration will come out of the few groups that refuse grant aid and find ways to work in the economy. At first sight this may seem impossible but commitment applied to a cause can lead to unexpected developments.
But a project that brings people together to a common cause and through which they learn about how to run a project and how to relate to others can lead to new ideas. When one door closes, maybe other doors open. Failure can inform the growth and development of the next project.
Lifestyle experiments to bring about social and economic change will almost always fail at some point. But we now have the means to record and share our experiments and perhaps by learning from others’ failures we can improve our future projects.
Setbacks can be the grounds for new initiatives that benefit from experience and do not lead to dispirited activists, who lack the energy to try anything new.