I took up my post as Chief Executive of SCVO at the end of April and International Day of Charity this week seemed like a good opportunity to consider what those first three months are making me think about. I’ve worked in the public sector for the last 30+ years but have been closely involved with the third sector for a sizeable chunk of that time. I’m also on the board of a children’s charity, Who cares? Scotland.
At SCVO, we’re doing some thinking about what it means to be a modern charity and there’s a piece about that in our new Third Force News magazine, launched last month. Julia Unwin’s work on civil society futuresalso explores this question. At a recent event, she reflected on the history of the sector as a continually changing response to societal changes, often at times of crisis. For example the recent rise in foodbanks and the amazing impact of the campaigns to end period poverty would be the modern equivalent of post-war action on child safety or housing.
Sometimes that means that new movements or organisations pop up, like Hey Girls. Sometimes that means that well-established organisations evolve to meet changing needs while holding onto their core mission, like Girl Guiding Scotland. Who would have thought that the organisation that encouraged girls of my generation to bake and sew would be promoting feminism and being open about menstruation? This is a great example of embracing the opportunities and challenges of the world as it is and being willing to shake off the old ways. All of us need to do that. We can’t cling to something just because it was once right.
Many charities are still tackling issues that feel intractable, like homelessness and poverty. The nature of those things might change, how they manifest themselves in our communities might change, but the basic injustice persists. Charities like Shelter or Cyrenians have adapted to those changes while holding onto their core purpose and values. For me, it is values and purpose that are at the heart of the sector. Fighting injustice and being motivated by social justice and empowerment. We’re not doing that to make a profit, we’re not doing that to fulfil a particular political ideology. We’re doing it because it’s right.
But passion can tip over into bitterness or cynicism. Financial insecurity can lead to unhelpful competition and holding onto identity can lead to duplication of effort. It’s really important that the sector works collectively, that we support each other and respect each other’s right to be heard. There are also things we need to let go. We must accept that some causes or organisations have had their day, however hard emotionally that might be.
In Scotland we have the benefit of being a small country with a strong sense of social justice and a history of innovation. I would like the third sector to hold onto that, and to stay passionate while evolving with the times and hold fast to our values. Be brave, take risks and work hard to make Scotland a better place across poverty, environment, well-being and rights. A thriving third sector is essential to achieving that and we must do it in a way that chimes for millennials and generation Z, while respecting the great history that gave us such strong foundations.