We write-off good ideas when they seem too far removed from our current realities. Unable to immediately comprehend the practicalities of such drastic shifts, we categorise the good idea as ‘impossible’ – and discredit it. But if we don’t start to challenge the seemingly impossible problems we face in the world, how will we ever move beyond them? On this note, what if trust was realised in every aspect of the voluntary sector?
“Change—surprising and sometimes radical change—does happen. The world does turn on its head every once in a while. And what seemed almost impossible looking forward seems almost inevitable look back.” (Getting to Maybe, viii)
With this quote in mind, please indulge in the possibly Utopic fantasy which follows.
The Trusting Place
Once upon a time, there was a distinct space that existed between the greedy hedonism of the private sector, and the soulless bureaucracy of government. This space was known as ‘the trusting place’ and was built-on an entirely different set of values than those of its counterparts; a place where trust was at the core of how and why people did what they did…
…I’ll skip the fairy tale hyperbole… But let’s think for a minute about what some of our sector’s relationships might look like if they were based on trust (rather than a range of contractual compliance measures)… All I ask is that rather than going to the knee-jerk ‘that won’t work because…’ response, take a minute to think about how much better than the realities you are used to dealing with, these options would be. If we can collectively acknowledge that there could be significant gains made (reaching new people, improving staff morale, discovering new social solutions, etc) from placing a higher premium on trust in our work, *maybe* then we can start to get passed some of the obstacles that have kept it from happening thus far…
What if managers and the staff they managed got to hold each other accountable on a range of mutually-agreed aims and objectives, rather than this process-happening in one-direction?
What if we felt we could admit our mistakes, shortcomings and poor judgment calls to those above and below us, without fear of some kind of retribution, backstabbing or disciplinary?
What if we only addressed problems as they arose, with the people involved, rather than filling reams of paper with ‘what to do in case of worst-case scenario’ policies?
What if funders and organisations saw themselves as partners, aiming to openly learn from their respective experiences and achieve social change together?
What if organisations were supported to trial some new ideas before throwing all of their efforts into one approach, helping learn what really works before deeply investing?
What if funders and trustees supported innovation and the kinds of (often risky) practices that foster it, rather than requiring a predetermined outcome and stressing heavy-handed accountability messages?
What if people who wanted to help a good cause could just show up and be put to work?
What if organisations encouraged volunteers to take-on high-level roles or define their own roles, rather than simply offering a ‘one-size-fits-all’ voluntary position?
What if volunteers made collective decisions on the issues that affect them, rather than having them imposed by management or trustees?
This is clearly a polemic piece…
Some larger voluntary organisations have broken through some of these barriers effectively, and many have not. My instinct is that if a big organisation (and their relevant funders) could put this whole picture into action, the gains would be truly immense.
If you do, let’s not get hung up on ‘why it will never happen’, and start thinking about ‘what steps are needed to make it a real possibility’!
As voluntary sector jargon goes, one of the most thoroughly-integrated tidbits of recent years must be the phrase that spawned its own New Labour quango: capacity building.
Through all of the criticisms Capacitybuilders (the quango) has faced, there has been some very good work they have supported (along with, I would argue, a significant share of waste). Before setting-up Concrete Solutions, I worked for CB funding at two different organisations, whose interpretations of the phrase varied considerably from one-another. As there are some indications that CB may be on the ConDem chopping block since the election, I felt it might be worth starting a bit of debate around the term, its value and some alternative ways of approaching it.
The problem with ‘capacity building’
My problem with the phrase is two-fold; firstly, I think a system that assumes deficits (the NEED to have capacity built) in those it exists to serve, will often miss out on the many assets those people or organisations may already have on offer, and could share more-widely, if given the chance.
Secondly (and maybe more fundamentally), is that the direction the capacity building agenda has tended to flow, follows some fairly traditional assumptions regarding money, power and what it means to be good at what you do.
…Let me put that in slightly less-abstract terms: organisations who DO the capacity building have, almost without exception, more money, stronger links to government and more uniform structures and processes than those whose capacity is built. The implicit assumption here is that those who have succeeded by these traditional measures provide the model that the (broadly speaking) poorer, less-connected with power and more chaotic community groups should follow, if they to want to ‘succeed’.
So let’s unpick success a bit. If you are a small youth organisation in Hackney working to support young people to leave gangs, is success getting to meet the Prime Minister, securing a multi-million pound government contract, creating spinoff projects across the country? Maybe, maybe not… it may be that with just a little bit of money, some support from the right local leaders and your team’s commitment, you are able to make a huge difference in the lives of young people that live around you. Focussing more widely than that may pull you from applying your skills and experience where they are most relevant and most needed. The capacity building model often assumes that:
1. Growth is inherently good; and that growth means conforming to established institutional protocols;
2. Reciprocally, those established institutional protocols are good, because they facilitate organisational growth.
‘Bigger is Better’?
Though the ever-crude ‘bigger is better’ approach is rarely promoted in relation to community groups, its ethos is still ever-present in the assumption that bigger organisations should be ‘teaching’ smaller ones how to operate more like them. I don’t want this to come-off as a blanket indictment of larger organisations, but given the dominance of the more institutional approach, feel a counterbalance may be useful.
So what makes big organisations ‘better’, if they are to be the templates smaller organisations should have their capacity built in the image of? Well, they are (often) good at fundraising, HR processes, finance, marketing, evaluation (maybe not evaluation)… but something often gets lost as organisations have their capacities in each of these areas developed by the experts. I’ve often heard this loss referred to as that of the organisation’s ‘soul’, but maybe less-melodramatically, could be seen as a loss of the organisation’s ability to see complex social problems through a complex lens, when their internal perspective has been confined by the often-inflexible systems they have been encouraged to build into the fabric of their organisation. (Read this for a differentiation between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems).
The complicated systems of multi-year planning cycles, pre-determined organisational outcomes and number-based evaluation, don’t themselves have the capacity to shift fast enough to accommodate the ever-changing complex situations so many community groups face on a day-to-day basis. What makes the best community groups effective is often their ability to understand the many complex forces at play in their area and constantly make ad-hoc adjustments based-on ever-changing scenarios. This flexibility is often made possible through less emphasis on planning and more on doing (and then doing differently, as often as is needed).
So what does this have to do with capacity building?
Effective capacity building can’t be a one-way process (as tends to be the case with the current model) – there must be an openness from larger organisations – traditionally those who ‘build capacity’ – to learn from the methods of those they are used to telling how things should be done. The rhetoric of this is often hollowly embraced, but must be taken-on (when appropriate) without the knee-jerk response of ‘that only works because they are small – it would never apply to us’.
Formality and structure can be very useful at times, but can also be hugely limiting when applied as a default way of organising people around social issues. If Capacitybuilders (the quango) want to survive the current and upcoming cuts, they might do well to look at some of the ways they could shift their approach to create honest learning spaces that would benefit both bigger and smaller groups, without assuming an inherent authority of one over the other. Such an approach might even fit nicely into the still-cloudy ‘Big Society’ agenda and save a funding body well-placed to facilitate some much-needed co-learning across the voluntary and community sectors…
I was recently invited by Graham Allcott of ThinkProductive, to record a conversation about some of the human institutions ideas I’ve been kicking around. If you get past my moderately frantic body language (does anyone else get this excited about management structures???), I think we managed to pull out some good ideas on where bureaucracy comes from (even in the most well-meaning public and voluntary organisations) and what we can each do in our workplaces to find alternative ways of getting things done.
If you’re interested in finding-out more about the human institutions concepts, we’re running a workshop in London on July 22nd (Pay What You Can/ Pay What You Think It’s Worth) and we’d love to have you along! Click the yellow button below to sign-up:
‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.
Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.
This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.
Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…
Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.
Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.
2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.
Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.
4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:
1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.
As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.
5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.
If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
This morning, I was glad to see that NAVCA – one of the English voluntary sector’s national representative bodies – had declared on their homepage that “to help us explain the work of our members and the difference they make, NAVCA is changing the language we use,” abandoning a handful of specific terms that mean very little to anyone who doesn’t work in a national voluntary sector umbrella body, or specific parts of government.
A simple, but important message
This is a declaration that likely received little interest from most who have come across it – who cares if NAVCA is no longer referring to ‘Local Infrastructure Organisations’ (sometimes woefully abbreviated to ‘LIOs’), or ‘the third sector’? (Please let me know if you think I need to write a ‘what’s so wrong with jargon?’ prequel post…).
It is unlikely to be an announcement that receives a lot of attention, but is an important one, nonetheless.
We’ve known the problem exists for some time now…
For years, staff in (mostly) large voluntary organisations, have regularly discussed the problems of ‘jargon’ in the sector; namely how it tends to confuse and exclude, more often than it actually allows us to articulate an idea more clearly and succinctly than we could with more regular language. It seems to come up at nearly every conference and workshop involving national and larger local and regional organisations, and within countless internal organising meetings at these same organisations, yet, if anything, both the quantity and frequency of the use of jargon, seems to be ever-increasing.
Why is this? If there is recognition of the problem (namely, that the people we are trying to reach and support are unlikely to know what we are talking about), than why don’t the organisations that perpetuate its usage, just stop using it?
NAVCA are starting to do just that. There are still countless bits and pieces of meaningless English (beyond the handful that NAVCA have found are ‘no longer fit-for-purpose’), that seem to find themselves scattered throughout the sector’s internal and external reports, press releases and promotional materials, but this is still an important first step.
A little more action…
Until now, many of the largest membership organisations in the sector, have ‘talked-the-talk’ about the evils of complex ‘in-crowd’ language in a sector that is meant to be all about people, but have often continued to accentuate the problems and divisions raised by continuing to use phrases and acronyms like ‘hard-to-reach groups,’ ‘CENs’, ‘regional infrastructure consortia’ and ‘BAMER’ without explanation.
Having found myself uttering these terms myself during my time in larger organisations, I can understand how perpetuating the language becomes subconscious. As a former colleague told me, who asked a friend to proof-read a document for its readability and was encouraged to change several phrases in it, “I thought everybody knew what that meant! I don’t even realise when I’m using jargon anymore!”
And though it was a significant realisation for this colleague, many of the people we worked with, and many of those who worked in other organisations like ours, were unlikely to have ever even questioned the terms and phrases that so many people find so utterly baffling.
So NAVCA’s move is a very much welcome one, to say the least; it is the first time (I have been aware) that an organisation of that size has taken concrete steps towards making their work more universally accessible, and though there is still much work to do to make many large voluntary organisations more welcoming to a wider range of people, this shows us that if there is a will, there is indeed a way to make change happen.
Ask your mates…
My colleague’s example is one I have often shared with people in organisations who struggle with recognising when they are in fact using jargon. The test is usually a simple one: get a few people in your life who know as little as possible about the work you do, but that you can trust to give you honest feedback, to proofread public documents before you make them public. Though not a silver-bullet, people who exist outside of our immediate circles can be much better sounding-boards for this kind of feedback, than those embroiled in the same language we become so used to in our day jobs.
Jargon is one of a range of ways that institutions become ‘less human’, and thus less-accessible to people not used to dealing with them. Changing the ways we speak and write can be an important step in changing the kinds of people our services, events and campaigns can reach and involve. Congratulations to NAVCA for sticking their collective neck-out and taking a stand against the overuse of jargon which so often separates people and institutions that exist to serve them.