Social Change Cannot be Automated
by Andrew McCracken, Director, Community Foundation NI
The Third Sector in Northern Ireland is an immensely important part of our community and economy - currently employing more than 44,000 people, plus nearly a quarter of a million volunteers.
With an annual budget of over a billion pounds; and we are trusted by the general public more than the equivalent sector in the UK.
The Third Sector is, however, in a complex inter-dependent relationship with the government. The vast majority of the Third Sector here is funded through the public sector. In the UK as a whole, 35% of the Third Sector’s income is from the government; in Northern Ireland that figure is 75%. Whilst it is the DNA of the sector that it is independent and can’t be forced to take anyone’s money, it’s still undeniable that public sector policy and leadership has a massive impact on the Third Sector. And a key policy question for the government must be - how does the public purse get the best outcomes from the Third Sector?
Achieving social change cannot be automated; it can never be strictly turned into a cause and effect equation - we know this from our own attempts to change ourselves; never mind those closest to us; never mind the rest of society. Achieving social change requires us to employ and enable individuals who are able to make value judgements at the front line in order to best change society. Those individuals are making complex judgements all the time - does this asylum seeker need a package from the food bank; or referral to receive benefits; or are they so traumatised that the first thing they need is a listening ear and then more professional counselling; or do they simply need to know their kids will have somewhere to sleep tonight? Is this community leader someone who is genuinely seeking to make things better for the young people they are working with; or do they have a malicious ulterior motive? Does this community really want a new community centre; or is it just a group who can’t see beyond a building to the deeper changes that are what should be focused on? Is this next million pounds better spent on prevention or symptoms?
Northern Ireland needs a vibrant Third Sector to be an even more innovative, empowered front line dealing with these issues. Not only are questions like this subtle, nuanced, and require skilled individuals with experience and pre-existing relationships and knowledge of communities to answer them; but questions like this rarely have one right answer; and the job of the thousands who work in the Third Sector is to manage uncertainties and complexities on a daily basis.
Which then places responsibilities on those of us who are leaders of the Third Sector - either leaders within the sector; or leaders from outside - including those who fund Third Sector organisations. If our leadership style is command and control; if it reinforces a story that there is one right way to do things, and it’s my way; if our leadership says I must be in control, not you; then no amount of clarity about the outcomes and outputs is going to actually achieve the change that we want to see. Instead, we must find a way as leaders to say - we trust you to make some of the difficult decisions here; and if things go wrong, as long as we are sure that learning is happening, we are OK with that. Having come back to Northern Ireland after 10 years working in the Third Sector in London it is my experience that this sort of leadership - leadership that values maximising results over minimising risk - is difficult to sustain. If we are clear to distinguish outcomes based management from outputs based management, there is hope we can do it.
It would be remiss of me, as leader of Northern Ireland’s Community Foundation, to not also mention the importance of private individuals and businesses and their philanthropy as a mechanism for funding and supporting the new and innovative approaches to social problems; giving from individuals and corporates can take some of the risks that public finances cannot take; and much of what is now accepted as common practice in our state systems - in hospitals, educations, or criminal justice - started as philanthropic activities which the state was then able to take further. Some of the solutions that the state will be funding in the future are those solutions that philanthropists are funding now, and learning from now.
Leadership and governance are not primarily about managing risk; they are about setting a vision and helping everyone to achieve that vision. It is the daily task of every leader in Northern Ireland to stop ourselves being paralysed into an audit led culture by all the imagined future voices who conduct post match analysis of our work; and instead for us to recognise that our job is to bring change and that is going to require us to take risks and to give the people around us the permission to take risks.
Many of the points I have highlighted will be discussed in more detail at the CO3 Leadership Conference. To register your place at the conference please do so here
Andrew McCracken is vice-chair of CO3, and Chief Executive of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, an independent local funding body which connects people who care to causes that matter, and which has given more than £100m away to good causes in NI since its institution in 1979.
 The Charity Commission for NI. 2016. Thematic report: the growing Northern Ireland register of charities. http://www.charitycommissionni.org.uk/news/never-seen-before-analysis-of-ni-charity-sector-released-by-commission/