We need the Big Help Out for a King’s reign and not just around his coronation

The Big Help Out is the volunteering effort tied to the royal coronation. It is designed to do good, so what’s not to like?

Despite the participation of a range of traditional volunteering charities and being backed by public figures such as Tim Peake and Jack Monroe, the initiative has attracted some scrutiny.

Rob Jackson, consultant on volunteering and co-author of The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook, set these down early as a series of question marks.

It is a curious time to be concerned about the state of volunteering perhaps, given that we saw record levels of voluntary action just in the most recent period over the pandemic. Research from the Royal Voluntary Service at the time suggested that over 12 million people volunteered during the pandemic, with 4.6 million of these doing so for the first time. Over 3,000 mutual aid groups were created with the participation of an estimated 3 million people.

Much of this however was informal volunteering, rather than the routines of structured formal volunteering and the level of formal volunteering (albeit with many health warnings about data lags) declined both over the pandemic and it appears since, given pressures on people’s time. In a blog for Pilotlight, I asked just under a year ago: are we past the peak of volunteering?

I see value in initiatives like the Big Help Out, but I also sense some risk in putting effort into one off initiatives rather than what would be of real value, which is a long-term, patient programme of social marketing to promote the habits and practice of volunteering.

My own involvement with this was to work with distinguished colleagues such as Professor Jeff French to help set up the National Social Marketing Centre for the NHS in the early 2000s. Through that, we were able to build a powerful body of evidence on potential for effective social marketing to make a positive difference to people’s behaviours over time. This is not just the famous ‘nudge’ but the application of full marketing toolkit, including segmentation, insight, design and where appropriate, public communication.

Social marketing in the UK has contributed since to efforts to reduce levels of smoking in the UK. There have been a number of social marketing campaigns aimed at reducing smoking, such as the “Quit for Them” campaign and the “Stoptober” campaign. These campaigns have used a variety of methods to encourage people to quit smoking, such as providing information about the health risks of smoking, offering support and resources to help people quit, and creating a social environment that is supportive of quitting.

As a result of these campaigns, alongside of course other tobacco control measures, the number of smokers in the UK has declined significantly in recent years. In 2000, 28% of adults in the UK smoked. By 2020, this figure had fallen to 13.7%. This decline is largely due to tobacco control measures aligned to effective social marketing campaigns.

Social marketing has been used widely for other public goods with proven results, from recycling, sport and activity through to healthy eating.

Two findings that I always find encouraging when it comes to volunteering are that:

  1. the most common reason people volunteer is because someone asked them and
  2. the longer that people volunteer the more they trust other people.

In short, volunteering is a wonderful tool, rooted in relationships and tailormade to nurture and fulfil positive values. I think of our own work at Pilotlight helping employers to facilitate skills-based staff volunteering as a form of ‘empathy accelerator’.

You don’t have to be a committed royalist to applaud the intention of King Charles to recognise and encourage volunteering. What we need though is a well resourced, well prepared programme to encourage volunteering over his reign and not just around his coronation.

Social marketing shows us how.

Making fun of diversity

Making DEI fun might sound at odds with the stark facts of disadvantage. But laughter can lighten the mood and open us up to new ways of seeing the world.

If it helps us to learn and use that learning for good, then fun is a perfect fit…

Our most recent staff session at Pilotlight was to complete a volunteering activity (production of tactile books) with a Partner Charity, ClearVision Project.

ClearVision Project’s Director, Alex Britton guided us in creating four to five tactile books that can be used by young people in reading groups at Linden Lodge, the school in which the charity is based.

Tactile books are used by young children with little or no sight, many of whom have additional physical or learning difficulties. Tactile books are an excellent introduction to the fun of reading, as well as being an invaluable means of conveying ideas, concepts and vocabulary. 

Sewing is not one of my stronger skills, but I knew enough to play my part and to help out colleagues with even fewer craft skills. We worked in teams and each team produced a book. Moments of silence were interspersed with moments of conversation and reflection, as if we were on a ramble or perhaps a pilgrimage together. Each team in turn could be heard in laughter.

We ended up with all the tactile books that we had hoped to pull together.

You can see more on our work and approach to diversity, including actions, plans and targets, plus an update on winning a Silver Award from Inclusive Employers here.

Fun? It can be a good tool for social change.

The pandemic helped us to see the value of co-operation

The idea that civil society should compete rather than co-operate has taken root over my lifetime.

Those who look at society through the lens of markets prefer a fragmented, competitive array of different charities, co-operatives and social enterprises, because having a choice can help direct resources to where they are most effective. In effect, this is the worldview of most charitable foundations, despite their philanthropic roots.

The drawback is the hidden costs of running a competitive system. As one charity CEO commented in the recent report by Pro Bono Economics, Unleashing the Power of Civil Society, “I think we’ve got 20 funding bids in at the moment, that’s taken hours and hours and hours of work, you may get one or two of those, if you’re lucky…and you have to go through the same things over and over and over again.”

Those who look at society through the lens of voluntarism again prefer to see a diverse and eclectic array of different entities and causes, because what matters most is what people are moved to take action on. The fragmentation of civil society is a symptom of the freedom of a society.

The drawback is that initiatives count more than impact, with cultures of governance – and regulation – that focus on safeguarding the entity above taking the right risks to advance the mission with others.

If we look at society through the lens of values, civil society emerges as more than an adjunct to markets and more than simply a channel for people to do good. Civil society is the way in which people can coalesce most effectively to advance the values that they hold – to build new constituencies for social justice and to challenge those in power to do the same.

With this lens, the key to success is effective co-operation.

When the pandemic hit, those leading the existing infrastructure networks for civil society set rivalry aside and came together, sharing information, providing peer support and taking up common points of advocacy. I joined early, in March 2020, then at Co-operatives UK, and rejoined when I started at Pilotlight in July 2020.

In the pandemic, we were all vulnerable, all in a new situation in which we needed to learn fast and peer relationships helped both in terms of well-being and in terms of knowledge sharing.

This collaborative network has developed far greater trust and co-operation across the voluntary sector through its work since then, including:

  • tackling the banking sector to improve the worsening service and access of charities to banking services
  • a peer review of organisations around their work and efforts to dismantle racism and widen diversity, equity and inclusion
  • engagement with emergency responses for communities under lockdown
  • persistent and intelligent advocacy, to promote cross-party support and win recognition for civil society, for example in the most recent schemes for support on energy bills for business

The ‘Never More Needed’ and ‘Right Now’ campaigns were among the first attempts to mobilise people across civil society in favour of civil society – something that was a remarkable gap before. NCVO and its devolved sisters act as a voice for the sector, ACEVO brings together its leaders, but perhaps because it wasn’t seen as needed – charities can rest on their laurels – no-one saw before that it was their role systematically to promote the value of the sector.

Co-operation thrives on momentum. If something is moving, people want to get on. If it is static, they fall off or step away. With generous inputs from organisations such as Directory for Social Change, and with a more open style of leadership at other key bodies, the momentum has grown, but without those involved seeking to create a formal organisation in its own right.

The result is the Civil Society Group.

This now has its own website, long after the collaboration started and the reason for setting it up is to allow for transparency, rather than to build a presence and brand. It is an informal collaborative and not a formal co-operative, because it looks to add weight to rather than displace those who are involved.

I have been proud to see values of co-operation that are cherished in the co-op sector flourish in the wider third sector. As Pilotlight we have contributed, with participation in the Strategic Oversight Group, building relationships and steering activity.

The full list of partners is an extraordinary one.

The three strategic goals of the Civil Society Group are to:

  • To use our collective power to influence the governments in all parts of the UK and to engage key stakeholders.
  • To promote and support programmes of beneficial change within the sector.
  • To maintain a mechanism for cooperation, communication, data collation and dissemination.

This is work in progress. As the co-op sector has long recognised, you need to recognise and invest in the skills of partnership and co-operation, rather than simply assume that people know how to do this. There is an emerging vocabulary around systems change and collective impact, but we have further to go to embed these as a core set of competences for hard-pressed non-profit leaders.

To do more for our world, rather than compete with each other or go it alone, we are choosing to organise. The pandemic helped us to see the value of co-operation.

Change the story

Here is a test.

What do you think of other people: are other people… more compassionate or more selfish?

Before I share what the researchers tell us, ask that same question of yourself. Are you more compassionate or more selfish?

So the research on this is by Tom Crompton at the Common Cause Foundation, a specialist on people’s values.

Three out of four people (74% of respondents) place greater importance on compassionate values than selfish values. This is the case irrespective of age, gender, region or political persuasion.

So we believe that we are more compassionate, more ethical.

At the same time, just over three out of four people (77% of respondents) believe that their fellow citizens hold selfish values to be more important, and compassionate values less important.

We believe that others are different, that they are more selfish, less ethical.

Plainly, one way or another, we are wrong. Either we are more selfish than we say, or others are in fact more like us, more pro-social than we would admit.

And it makes a difference.

With this inaccurate belief about other people’s values, people are significantly less likely to get involved – joining meetings, voting, volunteering. They feel less responsible for their communities and they report greater social alienation.

The converse is true for citizens who hold more accurate perceptions of other people’s values.

I think this is a profound cultural disorder. It creates division, and drives a sense of private good, public bad, even among people who personally are motivated to be kind to others.

Because they fear that others will not return their kindness.

Because others are out for themselves, winner takes all, dog eat dog.

Colleagues in the charity sector, led by the team at Reach, have started a campaign, Change the Story. The aim is to change how we see the world, by recognising that others are more like us than we fear.

Reach helps people to find roles as trustees in charities, just as Pilotlight supports people in business to give their time and skills to charity.

As research by the late Professor Johnston Birchall on people helping out in public services showed, volunteering helps to make citizens – and not just consumers.

This is a theme echoed by a range of practitioners, who have formed a network to learn from each other and raise awareness – the UK Values Alliance.

So, ask yourself this: do I ever feel a bit lonely, a bit different if I care about my community, about social justice, or about what we are doing to the environment?

If you do, then it is not because you are alone. It is because you are made to feel alone.

As Tom puts it “We live in a world in which the narratives that dominate in society and the economy are rooted in values that tend to marginalise ‘intrinsic‘ values of co-operation, fairness and sustainability.”

It is only by changing the story that we recognise our true place, as people who live in a moral community.

So long Ursula and thank you for all the co-operation

Ursula Lidbetter, the first female Chief Executive of a UK consumer cooperative in modern times, is stepping down from her role this month at the Lincolnshire Co-op.

She asked me to say something at her retirement party in Lincoln. And this is what I said…

I have two things to say to Ursula this evening.

First, that you have lived up to every best hope one could have for a co-operative business leader.

And second, that I and others of us who have also worked with you in the cooperative sector have been lucky to know you.

That could be the shortest and most succinct retirement speech you will hear, but given we are in Lincolnshire, bold claims need practical back up and I should go on to justify what I say.

A cooperative is a business that is owned in partnership by the people involved in the business.

That sounds wonderfully participatory and it is.

But easy to lead? It is not.

Ursula joined the society in 1985 – and yes, Lincolnshire Co-op is a society and not a company. Every auditor, every banker and almost every lawyer seems to trip up over that.

The language of co-operation with words such as society, mutuality and friendship and providence says so much of the different purpose at work in the founding of the enterprise.

When she joined, nearly half of all sales came from the co-op’s car dealerships, dairy and department stores.

When she became CEO in 2004 her first year was spent selling the dairy business and extricating the co-op from the collapse of the Rover car brand. The department stores took longer to resolve but are now all gone.

Over the last few years, she tells me “we have turned our old dairy site into a mosque, Lidl and houses. Our last two department stores are now a cinema site being developed by a district council in Gainsborough and in Lincoln our own development of an M&S opened a couple of years ago and an ALDI due to open on Thursday (part of our philosophy that we give communities what they want..)

Over eighteen years, she has grown annual sales by two thirds, the annual surplus by over a third, doubled the reserves, and grown the number of food stores by a third and pharmacies by a half.

Leadership under Ursula means being honest about challenges and entrepreneurial about opportunities. I have visited pharmacies where she has championed experimenting with giving space to libraries and volunteers.

To save the local library facilities, a volunteer run library opened up in a Lincolnshire co-op pharmacy ten years ago and is still going strong today.

Leadership has been about the long-term – who else was working with the university to grow the supply of pharmacists, who else was developing a cinema in the pandemic, who else has collaborated with so many for the redevelopment of Lincoln, the city?

I say, who else, but we know who else. Everyone else. Hands up who is a member of the coop?

300,000 people. I remember Ursula telling me of the Lincolnshire Co-op having difficulty doing market research in the county, as you could find members to talk to, but it was very hard indeed to find the control group, of people who were not members.

The co-owners of the business and the magic ingredient of the best leaders in a co-op, which is the number of willing followers.

When everyone is aligned, a co-op under a leader such as Ursula is like a northbound train, everyone is going in the same direction. There is no more powerful model of organising.

And when everyone has a different view and a sense of entitlement, nothing moves. It is the worst form of organising, with no fallback margin to tell people what to do.

And that is what Ursula stepped into when she became Chair of the Co-op Group.

There were others of course, but I say simply that without Ursula, the Co-op Group would have failed and we would have lost all the potential that we can still see in the form of a dynamic and ethical national convenience retailer.

I don’t know that the co-op sector, politicised as it can be, has learned the lessons of that debacle. But for me, one positive was to have seen the worst of co-operative leadership transition to some of the best. Ursula made that happen.

But this may be distant to the Ursula you know.

Where do you tend to see her? I have seen her in her office, round the Board table, at the bar in the early hours at co-op conferences, and of course in her cars.

This went with the job, you understand.

The society used to run car dealerships including British Leyland/Rover and her first first few company cars were those left behind by ‘departing’ managers. The Morris Ital was a pretty bad example. Another was a diesel Nissan Primera which she tells me “I hated every minute I drove it.

She then drove a wonderful Jaguar coupe and what she describes as her perfect car “my favourite convertible XKs , the prettiest car ever”.

To conform with Jaguar’s rules she had a new car every six months, but if a customer wanted to try the demonstrator it was whipped back to the dealership with a day’s notice and sometimes never returned. 

The rule had always been that the CEO and other senior managers drove the demonstrator vehicles as they had to be on the books anyway and could therefore be charged into head office costs. I did say she has an entrepreneurial mindset.

She now has a convertible BMW of her own – great engineering but she says it doesn’t touch her heart like the late lamented Jaguar XK.

So how will you remember Ursula? I will place her in a fast car.

From a different age, of horse and cart perhaps, an early commentator on the world of consumer cooperatives, Beatrice Webb, chalked up their success coming out of Rochdale to the character of ‘cussed Lancashire folk

Lincolnshire Co-op is by any measure a world class co-operative and it’s success over time is down to effective governance and sustained leadership.

In short it is down to the character of cussed Lincolnshire folk.

Those Rochdale cooperators though also knew a thing or two. In their advice to Co-op members, published in the nineteenth century, they cautioned “choose your leaders carefully … and give them your trust.

Ursula, but not just Ursula, as she has always had a first class team around her to help her lead.

I want to thank you for your friendship Ursula.

I always felt brighter and more full of solutions when we were together and I can see that this is one of your gifts. You make others feel when they are with you that they are more bright and more full of solutions.

So to those assembled, I hope I have given you some evidence to back what I say – the two things I have to say to you, Ursula this evening.

You have lived up to every best hope one could have for a co-operative business leader.

I and others of us who have worked with you have been lucky to know you.

Thank you for it all.

Purpose in the air

I don’t know if I read the right books.

This time of year, newspapers tend to carry recommendations and of course there are so, so many I have missed and that I would love to read. Perhaps I will have more scope in future years – I used to spend more time on trains, cycling to work has been good for me but it has cut my time to read.

But one book that I have enjoyed (and one that I didn’t find in the Financial Times review list or elsewhere as yet) is The Purpose Upgrade by Paul Skinner.

Paul is a mercurial brand entrepreneur and creative. I was pleased to work with him in the co-operative world and coming to Pilotlight, making links a second time through his own pro bono work via MarketingKind.

Purpose is in the air in business and we are not short of ways of articulating and promoting this as a cause, whether through co-ops, B-Corps or social enterprise more widely. But The Purpose Upgrade is a cut above and the writing is in general profound and illuminating. Here is Paul debunking neo-liberal thought in two sentences for example:

“In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith showed how self-interest can lead to a greater good as a by-product. A higher level of success, however, has now been shown to come from putting a greater good first and deriving self-directed benefits as the by-product.”

Bringing purpose to life is one of the great experiments in business at present. Polly Mackenzie has an article on the role of the Chief Purpose Officer, her job. It reminds me a little of my own writing on the idea of a Chief Values Officer – a practical post which was taken up by a leading independent co-operative, Midcounties Co-op, through the work of Pete Westall. Values and principles have always been important in co-operatives and this is a way of building capacity and accountability for this in practice.

From: https://medium.com/@mackenziepolly/whats-a-chief-social-purpose-officer-when-it-s-at-home-4992c3cd5478

Purpose can carry us through tough times. I have been reflecting on what I am reading in conversation with our Pilotlighters – business experts who support charity leaders through our impactful programmes.

In line with my most recent piece of writing, Give your culture a workout, for Pilotlight, I am quoted in a supplement for The Times today that:

“It has been easy for corporate employers to project feigned solidarity with their people, but inequalities of power and pay make for a shallow culture. During a recession, these inequalities come to the fore, which heightens tensions. Employee engagement will need to reinvent itself for this reality.”

Purpose is in the air.

And what else do you think should I be reading?

Living on a hill – a tribute to Vera O’Brien

Born at the Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Woolwich in 1924, Vera lived close by me, on Westcombe Hill.

When she died in early 2020, only four people could attend because of COVID restrictions. This weekend, a huge crowd gathered at St George’s Church, our local, to remember Vera – an extraordinary friend, neighbour, volunteer, fundraiser, jumble sale organiser, girl guide leader and great grandmother.

At this, we exchanged memories and here is one that came to me.

Perhaps it was her living so long on a hill, perhaps it was her going to church on a hill. Either way, one hill that we climbed together, up the very roof of the O2 to the pinnacle and back, was one Vera accomplished with seeming ease.

It was a shame that we hadn’t sponsored her to do it for Christian Aid, because this was a sporting achievement at her sprightly age to match the parachute jumps, mud wrestling or marathon runs of younger generations. We could have raised as much as an evening round she’d lead in May, knocking on local doors. Or even as much as an evening and a half.

It was December, and a cold, cold day. We were climbing to sing carols on the roof of the O2, the St George’s Choir, robed when we reached the top and with enough strong singers for the rest of us to join in, our voices lost in and melded with a wind-swept ensemble of carols high above the Peninsula. 

There was a photo to memorialise the occasion. The image was no doubt a short-lived, instagrammable moment for the marketing team of the giant property developers, with whom St George’s and allies across East Greenwich had tussled over time for a space for faith and prayer.

The image remains though. It is up on the walls of St George’s as you walk in, as a reminder. It is an image of Vera and her church friends. Indomitable. Timeless. Up for anything that could do some good. 

There was no hill in life that she could not climb – and see us hope to follow.

Voluntary or Co-operative? Comparing the national bodies, NCVO and Co-operatives UK

I have just finished reading a history of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) by Justin Davis Smith. I picked the book up in May when facilitating a strategy session at NCVO for voluntary sector leaders.

When I joined the charity Pilotlight in 2020, one of my first steps was for us to join NCVO as a member. I have to say it wasn’t an obvious step. NCVO itself was on its knees, with close to zero influence on government and deep question marks over its own integrity, after internal incidents of bullying and of racism.

But the voluntary sector needs an effective voice, and to help make that happen, you have to show up. For a membership body, times of crisis are also a test of whether people care enough and are committed enough for it to come through. Even if it takes time, there lies the hope of renewal. 

The same holds true for associations in other sectors. Having worked at one, Co-operatives UK, I am intrigued to compare the experience of the two organisations over time.

I have written before on what charities can learn from co-operatives and vice versa. This blog is on what we can learn about their national bodies.

The association of co-operatives is older, by fifty years. It was on Monday, May 31st, 1869, at 11am when Tom Hughes MP rose in his chair in the theatre of the Royal Society of Arts in London to inaugurate the Co-operative Congress. There a resolution was adopted “the time has come for closer union or confederation of the co-operative societies of this country for common purposes and for a propaganda for extending the co-operative system to agriculture and other districts where at present it is not in operation.”

What to call the new association? The great co-operator, George Jacob Holyoake had warned that “a long name is a social calamity. ‘The British Association for the Advancement of Science’ has eight words in it. Many of its best members have left it, worn out by the exertion in writing the name.” It took a few years for a name to evolve, the Co-operative Union. As with NCVO, the name would alter over the years to follow.

The association of voluntary action started life in 1919 as the National Council of Social Service. It had support from a number of national charitable bodies, but the practical catalyst was a bequest from Edward Birchall, active in voluntary service before the Great War and killed in the course of it.

For the co-operatives, restricted to consumer retail co-ops, despite the breadth of original ambition, the business model was straightforward. The members were successful local trading entities and they paid a subscription which covered the costs of the central body. From the same members also came the revenue for the two other linked and powerful federal bodies established to serve the sector, the Co-operative Retail Society and Co-operative Wholesale Society.

For voluntary action, the business model for a central body was no less of a challenge than for each of its members to find funds. As with its members, there were constant appeals and in time the challenge led NCVO towards some enterprising solutions, including revenue support from the work of the Charities Aid Foundation – as well as finance from time to time from the state, typically for running national programmes of action on the ills of the day.

The relationship with the state has been a complex one for the voluntary sector, with a moving boundary over time between voluntary and statutory action. From the start, the question of independence has been a cause for debate. There have been strident critiques of where NCVO has engaged with government programmes, such as around unemployment in the 1930s. But then at other times, the organisation is loud and proud in standing up against state policy, such as the lobbying over recent years around efforts to gag charities from lobbying and campaigning. 

You might think that the self-help ethos of the co-operative sector would stress independence from the state even more. But in fact, the relationship was more complex, as it was more partisan. For most of the twentieth century, Co-operatives UK was in effect formally and constitutionally aligned to the Labour Party through the mechanism of its own political party, the Co-operative Party, founded after the First World War in frustration with government restrictions on co-operative trade.

The character of the co-operative movement was working class and socialist, albeit with vocal support from others. NCVO in contrast could happily be characterised as establishment. Even so, there was an overlap. As Davis-Smith argues “several of the Council’s early champions and most influential thinkers, including Adams, Lindsay and Barker came from this liberal or left-leaning tradition.”

Both created space for the talents of outstanding women. Grace Hadow, for example, from 1920 inspired the most successful chapter of NCVO’s early years in the form of rural community action. In the years running up to the Second World War, the community councils that she championed had supported the building of 1,200 village halls, covering around one in every twelve villages in England.

Margaret Llewellyn Davies, from 1889, was a legendary and tireless General Secretary of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, perhaps the most extraordinary and influential ‘voluntary organisation’ of its day. The Co-operative Women’s Guild was a mass movement, voluntary in nature but conceived within the co-operative sector, supported by it and a voice and force for working class women, in terms of education, empowerment and advocacy.

The clear, leftist politics of the co-operative sector inevitably meant that its fate was caught up in the wider ideological battles of the twentieth century. The sector was a direct target for attack by fascists on the continent in the 1930s. In the wake of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, for example, co-op shops were firebombed. Hamburg had 163 co-op shops with their windows smashed. In 1933, stormtroopers were placed outside of co-op shops. All co-op ‘propaganda’ was banned. Nazi ‘führers’ were placed onto all executive committees. Between 1935 and 1941, there was a compulsory liquidation of the movement. Adolf Hitler was given a birthday gift of 1 million Reichsmarks of confiscated co-op funds. Co-operatives UK’s general secretary R. A. Palmer, my predecessor in role, was placed on Hitler’s death list if the UK was invaded.

I have not found the right data to give an exact comparison of the size of each sector, including in volunteer roles, such as on committees, around this time. But in formal economic terms, it appears that for a long time in the UK, the co-operative sector was far larger than the voluntary sector. In the 1950s, there were around 30,000 co-operative shops and 250 factories. By contrast, even noting ‘the growth of a salaried bureaucracy’ in a 1937 report, the think tank Political and Economic Planning cites Census figures of around 10,000 employees working in voluntary organisations.

Both, though drew from a rich and long culture of associational life. One estimate I found in writing my own book, A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality, is that in the eighteenth century, there were a remarkable 25,000 clubs and societies meeting in the English-speaking world. These ranged from social clubs and arts societies through to debating clubs, book societies, alumni, freemasons, horticultural societies, music societies, sports clubs, professional associations, philanthropic and political societies, religious bodies, scientific and learning societies…

The subtitle that Justin Davis Smith, who is now the course director of the Charities Masters programme at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Bayes Business School, gives to his history of NCVO is “idealists and realists”. The same combination would ring true of co-operative action at the national level. The idealists saw in co-ops a way of organising society anew. The realists saw them as a practical way to meet needs. There are tensions as well as synergies in the mix of the two.

Idealism and realism came together from the start in the co-operative sector with a strong focus on education. Well before universal education, this helped to make the movement a genuine accelerator for working class talent. This included a recognition that running a co-op needed a distinctive set of skills. In contrast, it took a long time for the same focus on skills to arrive with the same emphasis at NCVO, with the establishment of a national training programme for staff in voluntary organisations only in 1997.

Ironically, by then, co-operative education had lost its own way – some retail societies even refused to appoint graduates as managers out of preference for talent from the shop floor. Poorly managed, poorly governed, one by one the weaker societies failed, using mergers not so much as a route to scale but as a way to muddle through.

The triumph of idealists and realists at NCVO as I read it, is in the proud track record that the organisation has had of incubating and advancing new voluntary sector bodies. The list of organisations that has been cradled by NCVO, some for very long periods of time, is astonishing. It includes Age UK, BOND, Charities Aid Foundation, Citizens Advice, CPRE, National Children’s Bureau, Neighbourhood Energy Action, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Waste Watch and the Youth Hostels Association.

By contrast, both with NCVO and with some other national bodies such as Pellervo in Finland, which played a catalytic role in creating new co-operatives at least early on, Co-operatives UK appears passive and insular over time, as if defending co-operative space rather than enlarging it through fostering innovation.

But leading your members is not an easy formula and in both cases, the associations developed a love of Commissions as a way to look forward. Every few decades resource-hungry Commissions, chaired by the right big name, would be asked to chart ways forward for each sector. For the voluntary sector, this included the Wolfenden Commission, the Deakin Commission and the more recent Inquiry led by Julia Unwin. For the co-operative sector, it included the Gaitskell Commission, the Monks Report and the Myners Review.

At times, each association has been left behind by new practices and new radicals in the sector. The campaigning charities of Shelter and Child Poverty Action Group reinvented voluntary action in the 1960s, with NCVO struggling to keep up. The disabled persons movement looked to replace charity sector paternalism with participation. The worker co-ops formed in the 1970s, forerunners and pioneers of so much participatory self-management in the workplace today, also found no home and no recognition in the wider co-op sector for decades.

Each sector too struggles to keep up with a changing society. While both can claim a strong track record in recent years of leadership by women, when it comes to race and wider diversity, both sectors risk falling behind. Having fallen so short on this, NCVO has won support for its remedies and plans going forward.

And yet overall, by encouraging and nurturing voluntary and co-operative action over time, both associations have left a profound mark on the world. As Raymond Williams argued, the ways that so-called ordinary people have had of getting together to make a difference are cultural achievements, to be taken as seriously as cultural products as paintings, plays and books.

The difference that has been made over time to individuals and communities through voluntary and co-operative action is incalculable. As Julia Unwin CBE puts it, ever eloquently, “reading this excellent history, I was struck time and again by the continued power of civil society to challenge and disrupt other sources of power, to mobilise money and effort to solve major social problems.”

There is not yet a history of Co-operatives UK over its full 150 years (I think 100 was the last one) to put alongside my copy of ‘100 Years of NCVO and Voluntary Action’ by Justin Davis Smith. It would not be a best seller. But there is value in setting the challenges that currently face both sectors in a historical context.

As Sarah Vibert, the energetic and collaborative new CEO of NCVO, puts it to me – “what will be the next chapter that we can write?”


Hazel Henderson, a world-renowned futurist and new economist has died at the age of 89 years old.

A prolific writer, Hazel authored nine books and hundreds of articles leading to what is now known as sustainability and growing the “green” economy. Alongside pioneering work on the social use of technology, she was an early and leading advocate of the shift to renewable energy, outlined in her 1981 book, for example, The Politics of the Solar Age.

If ever anyone was able to bring the future forward, it was Hazel. To call herself a futurist suggested that she inhabited the future, whereas she was energetically and insistently always present too, with columns and opinions and writing shaped to the contours of now while always also looking forward too. I am so very grateful for her enormous contribution to new economic thought and practice, her generosity of engagement and her tireless inspiration.

I remember early on, when I was CEO of the UK based New Economics Foundation, pressing against the growth orthodoxy of the day, she would encourage me by repeating her view that ‘you don’t argue with economists… you hire economists’.

She was encouraging of others in the field and as an example this showed up so often in the references to her cake and icing model of wealth – a sustainable food metaphor before, thanks to Kate Raworth, we discovered the donut.

I was lucky to be able to commission Hazel to write what turned into one of her most powerful short books, Beyond Globalisation. In this, she ended with a reference to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that if ever humanity discovered the true power of love, it would be as profound a change in our social condition as the discovery of fire.

Hazel, here we were always proud of your Bristol roots, always inspired by your engagement and will, now that you have rest, always be grateful for your full, rich and generous life.

What can charities teach civil servants?

A new report out from Pro Bono Economics, as part of their current Law Family Commission, points to the gaps that exist between the world of charity and the world of policy and decision-making in the UK. Of the groups that the research looks at, civil servants were the least likely to have contact with charities. While one in three has volunteered their time over the last twelve months and one in ten has been a trustee, positive figures, close to half of civil servants (45%) have had no active engagement with charities. So what gets missed out if our public sector is not engaging with the public in this way?

The key gap is better government. In terms of crossing boundaries, the two most important contributions of charities, as seen by civil servants, MPs and councillors, are ‘raising awareness about important issues affecting citizens’ and ‘bringing together communities to work on issues that affect them’. In short, where decisions are made with input from charities, they are more likely to reflect social needs and more likely to lead to social improvement.

An example of a gap in understanding, the authors argue, is the field of skills and training. Charities provide as much training as local authorities, but only a minority of civil servants (44%) see an important role for the voluntary sector in supporting the workforce. At the same time, the report also argues that charities do not tend to have a good understanding of policy and government, so bridging the gap will take work on both sides.

In terms of recommendations, the authors would like to see a civil society liaison post at a senior level in every department. One of the ironic elements of the research was that it suggested that civil servants tended to think that their own department was significantly better at this than other departments – and yet of course they could not all be right.

Our work is primarily with individuals and businesses from the private and voluntary sector, but we have good experience of running programmes with civil servants as a form of leadership development for them, as well of course as a benefit to the frontline charities that we partner. Broadly, the benefits are in learning skills, such as ones of influence, curating stakeholders, achieving impact, that the charity sector excels at.

The authors also point to the work of Pilotlight, among others, as one of the “excellent examples which already exist across the civil service…to match their skills with charities which need them.” The role of the Whitehall Industry Group on secondments is also highlighted.

We are working with the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership for example. One Pilotlighter involved has commented that:

What Pilotlight offers is an amazing opportunity for learning and developing alongside sharing your own skills and knowledge. The complexity of the NHS and Health and Social Care Partnerships can be mystifying to those of us who work in it at times, so being able to unpick that for others to some degree, and help them see where we can work better together, feels incredibly important at this point in time. I had a wonderful experience, and would happily recommend it to anyone.”

The charities we are working with are themselves sources of inspiration in terms of bringing lived experience to bear in the world of policy. Few do this better than the Pollok based charity The Village Story Telling Centre, one of our partner charities involved, which believes that “everyone has a story worth hearing, yet nobody’s is written in stone.”

From previous work with the Ministry for Justice, we have been told that “the Pilotlight model offers a very very rich learning environment for our leaders.” But there is one intriguing difference we saw with this, compared to our work with partner businesses.

Whereas HR Directors in business tell us that they are motivated in part by a desire to build authenticity in their leaders, those in the public sector feel that civil servants “already have that authenticity working through them.’  For them, it is about engaging with these issues at a more frontline level where they can learn how to make a difference in practice.

The difference in impact felt working with a Pilotlight charity compared to their day jobs is perhaps usefully illustrated in a triangle of charitable activity used by Caroline Fiennes in her book, ‘It ain’t what you give it’s the way that you give it’.  In their day jobs, civil servants were working lower down the triangle where work is more distant from the beneficiary; through Pilotlight, they were typically working with service delivery/frontline charities towards the top of the triangle whose work was closer to the beneficiary and where impact could be more immediately and tangibly felt.

A world in which there is better learning across sectors, more skills sharing and more of an impact in terms of a focus on the voice and needs of people in communities affected by the decisions of decision-makers has to be one worth exploring.

We will all learn faster and better if we do.