Someone suggested to me today that their charity had been unwilling to adopt more democratic, participatory, transparent organising structures, in significant part due to the perceived ‘reputational risk’ associated with doing so. Without pointing at that organisation, more than any other, this is my Third Sector-goes-Onion response to the idea that a more democratic structure could be seen as a reputational risk. It is the ongoing story that doesn’t make sector press ‘news’ each day.
“Charity maintains undemocratic Industrial-era management in 2013!”
Today, a leaked report from AidHope International, one of the world’s biggest development charities, revealed that the organisation employed a management structure designed in the late 1700s to maximise the number of pins that a pin factory could produce.
In a confidential document entitled, ‘The Way Forward: Relearning the Lessons of Taylorism,’ the organisation describes its approach as “a blueprint for treating a group of passionate people as cogs in a poverty and corruption-ending machine. And then replicating that machine wherever we can get funding to do so.”
Their management structure centralises decisions with those furthest from the ground, offers minimal opportunity for those affected by the organisation’s work to have their voices heard, and crushes anything in the way of creative or innovative thinking, though endless sign-off processes. The practices used by AidHope – which advocates for more transparent, participatory and democratic forms of government in Africa – is based on a few key principles:
1) Only those furthest from the action are qualified to make decisions that affect it,
2) Solutions can be copy-and-pasted from any situation to any other situation that seems kinda the same,
3) White men just seem better than anyone else at all the stuff that pays really well…
Under ‘The Way Forward’ document, lower-level managers were made to feel just a little bit more important than the people they managed. However, they were also made to feel deeply insecure about their position, because of the assumption they were meant to know everything that each of the people they manage know, and work on directly.
The document suggests that managers should pass blame down to their most junior employees, while credit for their subordinates’ work should be hoarded, until their own manager becomes aware of it and decides to take it for themselves.
Decades after such methods began to be discredited in management circles, AidHope has clung to them, drawing fierce criticism from key stakeholders for the seeming hypocrisy of its dated and deeply undemocratic internal practices.
John Eggleton, a Departmental Oversight Controller at the Office for Aid Transparency, expressed shock at the revelation, stating, “It is deeply regrettable that AidHope have brought their good name into disgrace, by demonstrating such a massive gulf between what they tell others to do and what they do themselves.” When asked what he felt could repair the damage done to the organisation’s reputation, Eggleton said his salary grade did not give him clearance to offer solutions, only to feign outrage on behalf of his superiors.
Similarly, when David Luffbottom, Chief Executive of fellow aid organisation, CrossHelp, was asked about the AidHope International situation, he was equally indignant; “Clearly, AidHope haven’t been doing a very good job – I mean, there’s no way anyone who might ever consider leaking a document of this magnitude should have even known it existed!”
Meanwhile, at AidHope, the press team scrambled to prepare a response, telling this reporter that the charity would have an official statement prepared by early next week, once the appropriate directors (one of whom was on annual leave until Monday) had signed-off on it.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one AidHope senior manager disclosed that the organisation’s board had “thought about changing, but came to the conclusion that no one else within or around the organisation would do things as well as they did.”
Making reference to some of the alternatives to the management structures employed by his organisation, the manager said: “I once heard a senior colleague refer to participatory budgeting, or flat management structures, or consensus-based decision making at a reception at the [House of] Lords, but he was seriously sauced at the time and was probably just taking the piss to get a laugh out of the Peer who was hosting us.”
“Ultimately,” explained the insider, “we realised how hard it would be to justify our own jobs if we began to practice anything that might resemble real democracy, and so decided to just keep doing what we’d always done. Just like everyone else.”
I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.