On the 6th September the Big Lottery Fund hosted a Future of Doing Good event in Glasgow. One of the speakers was Wevolution’s Noel Mattias, Managing Director.
My reflections in this piece are tainted by WEvolution’s 5-year unfinished work of `movement building’, a decade of interactions and conversations with people I have gotten to know and respect and a cross-cultural bias (I’m from India originally).
On some days, when I feel a bit more cynical than usual, I think of us as a nation of moaners. On most other days, feeling indulgent and positive, I think of us as people who live, work and thrive within a sea of contradictions. Consider our views on the bankers and corporate honchos, for instance. We critique them for their fat bonuses and pay cheques but happily watch soccer matches of our favourite football clubs and stars who take home ludicrous amounts of money every week. We protest against child labour and sweat shops in Bangladesh and elsewhere but speak only with pride of our ageing or dead parents who worked in the soot-covered factories of the past here from the age of 13 and introducing a strong work ethic for the next generation. We read – and probably applaud – the ban of burqas, hijabs, etc. and consider it important for the sake of cultural integration but fail to notice the catholic nuns with their habits on our streets. Whither culture and integration?!
It is within this present moment, strewn with contradictions, that I want to propose a few perspectives around the work of ‘movement building’. Perhaps it might offer us some fodder for the future of doing good:
- Movements are built around a cause but are also intrinsically about creating something new. The Voluntary Sector is notorious for being anti-something or the other. We are against poverty, against wealth, against injustice, against inequality and what have you. But let’s consider Facebook and Twitter. They don’t stand up against anything. If anything, they have created something new: products, services and experiences that have taken hold of our imagination and attention and built a community of sorts. A community that is more intentional and has stronger bonds than the ones we’ve been trying to build for years despite the investment of hundreds of millions of pounds! So here’s a challenge for our sector: to create and not merely protest. Quite simply, stop whining and get more innovative based on people’s resourcefulness rather than make interventions based on their problems.
- Movements introduce chaos. And chaos doesn’t sit well within our Western psyche. We want everything to be prim and proper and all within the confines of our health and safety regulations. But here’s the thing: If necessity is the mother of all innovation, then I say, chaos is the granny of it all.
- Movements challenge people, not mollycoddle them. Within WEvolution, we use the word ‘carefront’: caring about people and their aspirations to flourish and confronting them when necessary. I remember giving a workshop on WEvolution’s Self-Reliant Group (SRG) approach to a group of community development professionals in one of the regions in Scotland. I spoke about one of the hallmarks of an SRG: every single member saves a minimum 50p or £1 into their group savings regardless of their circumstances. One of the participants appeared horrified and immediately commented: Oh, but they are so poor. How can we ever expect them to save? Really??!
- In movements, you don’t get to pass the buck. It stops with us. Our sector is very good at positing a common enemy for all the social and economic ills we face in our communities. But here’s the brutal truth: it’s not someone else’s fault that poverty exists. It’s not someone else’s fault that foodbanks exist in our country. It’s your fault and mine. Personal responsibility and all that. That’s equality for you, right there.
- A good movement is one which introspects not just evaluates. While evaluation is about success, introspection is about meaningfulness. We have built an entire industry around evaluation and monitoring within our sector. But introspection goes deeper: why are we doing the work we do? Have I changed my lifestyle to reflect the values of my organisation and work? How has life for people really changed because of my work?
- Movements don’t obsess with the local but connect the locals. It goes beyond the `networks’ that we spend so much time talking about and talking at. Networks tend to be more about the coming together of organisations and their leaders rather than the people for whom they exist in the first place!
One final word. Every one of us working within the voluntary sector, we are not our job titles or our job descriptions. We are meant to be entrepreneurs: resourceful people exercising our imagination and innovating constantly. The future will have scarcer resources and will need more resourceful people. How we see ourselves in the present, with all our contradictions, will determine the future of doing good in the UK.