The new rules of engagement: How charities embrace the “real” Big Society

Last week I suggested major social change driven by the web is fundamentally changing the ground rules for how charities need to engage with their supporters. In this article, I look at how some charities are already rising to the challenge.

The boundaries between charities and their supporters are becoming increasingly blurred as the relationship between ordinary people and bodies acting on their behalf goes through a sea change brought on by the web-driven communication revolution.

Donors and supporters increasingly want to feel as though they are at the heart of decision making at charities, and see their chosen charity as a part of their own activity in support of a particular cause rather than as a dislocated body acting for them.

This is the “real” Big Society – and the charities, and other public bodies, that thrive in it will be those that most quickly grasp its opportunities and tackle its threats.

Ahead of the game

Some charities are already ahead of the game in this respect – either because of awareness that society is changing or simply because their ethos has always been for maximum accountability.

For some, it is a fundamental part of their vision of themselves, for others toes are being dipped in the water.

One charity that has successfully put this level of engagement at the heart of its idea of itself is mental health charity Rethink.

Much of the policy decision, on-the-ground engagement, media work, fundraising and strategy direction comes from their team of Rethink Activists – ordinary people directly affected by mental illness or who care about the issue.

These are their supporters, donors and volunteers, not just being asked to raise money, work for the charity or donate – but actively being involved in the direction of the charity.

Rather than asking supporters to join them, they are joining supporters on an equal footing – bringing with them the resources to help support a common interest, but importantly acting with them, not for them.

The structure of the organisation, with local and national committees of supporters and people directly effected by the issues they tackle, is based around openness. This is backed up by a highly active online presence which creates a network of mutual support with supporters and charity staff talking on an equal footing – the blogs and forums “belong” to the users not the charity.

Paul Jenkins, chief executive, Rethink Mental Illness, told this blog:  “Rethink Mental Illness exists to help people affected by mental illness as much as we possibly can. It is essential that they are involved at the heart of our organisation to ensure that everything we do, from the services we provide to the issues we campaign on, are the issues that directly impact on the lives of the people we exist to serve.”

Breaking down barriers

People are increasingly more interested in causes, not individual charities. They are also interested in openness and accountability.

Charities like Rethink have made the important leap of imagination from being an arms-length champion of an interest group to being just another member of that interest group – albeit one with a lot to bring to the table.

Of course for many charities, breaking down the barriers to that extent is not something that can happen overnight. But inclusion in decision making can begin at campaign level and in stages.

The same social platforms that have been the catalyst for societal change are also some of the best tools for embracing it.

Oxfam’s Oxjam is a crowdsourcing exercise that engages hundreds of people to organise local events. It’s a classic example of a charity empowering “street-level” activism by lending its brand and resources in support of ordinary people who want to do something for themselves in support of causes they care about.

‘Networked non-profit’

They are – importantly – not getting people to support Oxfam, they are helping people who care about the same issues as Oxfam. That is a fundamental part of the new mindset.

On a local level, charities are making empowerment of local activism a major part of their remit. An example on my doorstep is Bristol’s Knowle West Media centre which recently helped a group of OAPs save their vital  lifeline – a bus route on their estate – by providing the platform of a voice and technology to enable them to be heard

Beth Kanter, who has written some pioneering articles on this new kind of engagement, calls it “networked non-profit”, describing it as “a big charity that breaks down its fortress walls to encourage loosely-connected supporters to do what they do best”.

I would change that only slightly to say “encourage loosely connected individuals who share the same concerns”. The, subtle, difference being that you don’t just need to engage supporters of your charity, but of your cause. They don’t need to care about who you are, just what you do and how you can help them make a difference. You are all working together to the same ends and you’re just a part of the team.

Perhaps most importantly, they care how you do things. You are no longer asking them to support you, they are inviting you to join them. With that change in the relationship comes the need to accept that your organisation – if it is to be relevant in the 21st century – no longer belongs to you but to the people who support you, with all the implications for transparency and engagement that brings.

In the last article I said your supporters must now be seen as your trustees. Perhaps even beyond that, your supporters are the charity.

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