UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy has been criticised by some as too feeble to make much difference, and by others as unwarranted government interference in markets. Whatever the truth, it certainly marks a departure from the laissez-faire industrial policy of the coalition era. It is also a prompt to pay attention to the collective issues that affect everyone like skills shortages or infrastructure, but for which few have individual responsibility.
This is relevant to the world of charity and philanthropy too. Definitions of industrial strategy tend to run along the lines of ‘a strategic effort for improving the capabilities of an industry sector’, and this is something the social sector sorely needs.
I have argued before that UK charities are collectively weak, and the re-emergence of industrial policy, dealing as it does with the environment that individual organisations operate in, reminds me just how thin the glue is that holds charities together. I am talking about the web of collective assets we possess: for example, our professional associations, infrastructure bodies, specialist education, and the market for services and technologies designed to meet our needs. Along with less tangible things such as our shared store of knowledge, ability to speak with a collective voice and level of collaborative activity.
These are the ties that bind us, that help individual organisations to succeed, and they are not strong.
This is problem for the philanthropy sector. Why? Because we face severe collective challenges, and any one organisation acting on its own is vulnerable. To highlight just a handful of examples, in the UK, we are already in the midst of a prolonged period of austerity which is redrawing the boundaries of the state and having serious implications for the welfare of disadvantaged people.
At the same time charities and philanthropic organisations are threatened by the reduction of public trust in institutions, a factor leading to rapid changes in the way they can fundraise. All of this occurs in an increasingly chilly atmosphere for civil society organisations, particularly those that pursue their mission through campaigning and advocacy.
We are finding our room for manoeuvre constrained on several fronts—the ability to raise money, the right to campaign and the existence of a public sector with the capacity to work with us. And those are just the immediate challenges. Less pressing but longer-term and equally profound are trends like demographic change, technology and automation.
I have described these things as challenges, and of course they are opportunities too. So what is it that we would need to rise to the occasion? If an English industrial strategy were to be written for the voluntary sector what should it contain? Here are my top three picks:
- Infrastructure that is fit for purpose. Whether local, national or specific to a field of activity, much voluntary sector infrastructure is under-funded and answers questions that are no longer being asked. We need platforms for serious collaboration, for strengthening our collective voice and for investing in the resources for which we have a shared need.
- Investment in our collective knowledge. We need tools to aggregate data like 360 Degree Giving, places where knowledge is collected like the Centre for Youth Impact, shared resources for measuring social impact like NPC’s own JET framework or Power to Change’s Twine technology and collective solutions to difficult problems like accessing administrative data sets, for example on re-offending.
- The time and space to reflect, learn and plan. In a sector under relentless pressure, the ability to invest in our understanding of the situation and how we should respond, and to invest in the relationships to allow us to do some of that collectively, may be the most precious commodity. It is something that restrictive, short-term funding denies us the ability to do. And it is one of the greatest gifts a philanthropist can bestow.
Rob Abercrombie is Director of Research & Consulting for New Philanthropy Capital.