The real Big Society is already here – and you need to be ready

Society – and expectations – are changing fundamentally, with huge implications for charities that go way beyond anything contained in the new Giving White Paper

The Government has put Charity and the Voluntary Sector at the heart of the latest re-launch of its Big Society project.

Among the facts and figures about giving and taking, Social Action Funds and the intriguingly titled Spice system, is a section about Impact Reporting.

It’s only two paragraphs in a 68-page document, but – perhaps inadvertently – it goes to the heart of the real Big Society that is emerging with or without David Cameron’s cheerleading and which goes far beyond anything set out in the rest of the paper in addressing the future of charity work – and much more besides.

In a nutshell, Impact Reporting is a buzzword for accountability – letting donors “decide which opportunities are right for them and where they feel their money (and time) will be best spent”.

There’s talk of charity comparison websites – a sort of charitysupermarket.com – but little detail, just a promise of more to come at the Giving Summit in the Autumn.

But the reality is this level of accountability between donor and charity is happening anyway, on a scale far larger than the Government realises and in a way that is changing the ballgame not just for charities but for the whole of society. And it starts on the web.

The “Facebook Revolution”

Facebook, and Social Media as a whole, has been getting a lot of attention recently – from Twitter’s part in the breakdown of the Super Injunction system to Facebook’s role in the fall of governments in the Middle East.

The popular uprising in Egypt has even been dubbed the “Facebook Revolution” – based on the role of the platform as a means of organising direct action.

However, this is largely missing the point. Egypt was no more the “Facebook Revolution” in that way than Berlin 1989 was the “Telephone Revolution” – a means of communication does not make people risk their lives in challenging an authoritarian regime. And Twitter was a means – not a reason – for the open defiance of court orders.

There is, as is often said, a “Social Media Revolution” happening, but forget the media part – it’s a social revolution.

Among the many interviews taking place during the dramatic events in Egypt was a BBC report asking young Cairo protesters “why now”? There had been oppression before, but never this response. The answer was pretty clear: “We wanted things to change but we weren’t listened to”.

There is the real revolution – people expect to be listened to in a way that they never would have before. They expect to be at the heart of decisions, not informed about them afterwards.

Social Media, the rise of the web, has transformed society to the point where there is a complete transformation of the ancient relationship between the public and the bodies that act on their behalf – the governments, the law, the media – and charities.

Injunctions are broken not just because it’s technically easier, but because in the information age we refuse to let people control information. Governments are overthrown because being heard is now as much a part of our expectations as being fed.

Donors are the new Trustees

The mindset has been changed by the rise of the individual driven by Web 2.0, but the impact is not jut online – it is everywhere.

For charities it means there is now a need for openness on a scale never seen before. Social Media doesn’t just mean having a Facebook account or organising a flashmob.

It means accepting that your donors are now your trustees.

You are accountable to them not just in terms of telling them how their money is spent but in asking them about strategy and direction, in consulting with them on change, in making decisions about the future, in monitoring the charity to ensure it is meeting objectives.

We don’t want to put money into a detached body that takes our money to do something in our name – we want to be part of that organisation, we want to be spending our donations ourselves.

Accountability is more than reporting – it’s involving. It’s letting supporters run campaigns on your behalf, crowd-sourcing ideas, providing support to looser affiliations of like-minded individual campaigners rather than asking them to support you.

There’s a popular viral video, set to the music of Fat Boy Slim that sets out the staggering scale of Social Media take-up. Among the pop-video bombast is a simple quote that sums up the real cost of not facing up to realities of the change that’s occurring: “The ROI on Social Media is that your organisation will still be here in 10 years”

The ROI on facing up to the social revolution – online and offline – is the same.

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