by | Dec 18, 2017

The Social Change Project: Governance Models and Social Change

We are hosting detailed discussions on each of our ten ‘burning issues’ to explore some of the big questions around these issues, and gather different perspectives from across civil society. One of these issues is Governance and Leadership.

Do our structures allow us to be as effective as we can be? What difference do different legal entities make to how we think and act? What does good governance for enabling social change look like? And is the charity model fit for purpose? These are just some of the questions we explored in a group discussion for the Social Change Project recently.

Looking at the many structures of organisations and groups which make up civil society, each have advantages and disadvantages, depending on what we are looking to achieve. But how much influence do structures actually have, or is organisational culture more important? In particular, cultures which encourage us to ask more bold questions, and which make it easier for a wider range of people to contribute to governance.

What does good governance for enabling social change look like?

We asked the group to come up with some key principles of what governance should do. The main ideas were: accountability; legal and financial compliance; clarity, credibility and transparency; above all, long term strategic overview, vision and drive. But there can be a fine balance to strike between some of these principles. For example, while we want good relations between a board of trustees and staff, we also want the board to be able to challenge and ask difficult questions where necessary – to act as a critical friend.

What is the right balance between accountability and flexibility?

Accountability is a key pillar of governance. But with the bureaucracy involved in being a registered charity, should we be looking to other structures for more flexibility?

One example which we discussed was the rise of crowdfunding platforms. Does it matter that the individuals raising money on here are fairly unaccountable? One participant suggested that we should just be focussed on the question: ‘who is actually helping?’

Crowdfunding has the flexibility to allow informal groups and individuals to raise large amounts of money quickly. But is this the most effective way to achieve change? In responding to a humanitarian disaster, for example, a large organisation or a consortium such as the DEC have well-established infrastructure and resources in place which allow them to act rapidly and effectively, in a way that others would not be able to.

We also want to ensure money is spent effectively. The protections that charities have in place around how money is spent, managing risks such as fraud, but also importantly safeguarding beneficiaries, are more than just bureaucracy. The ‘right’ balance between accountability and flexibility may therefore depend on what you want to achieve.

Does the charity model have an image problem and are we doing enough to change this?

Discussing recent media stories around governance brought us onto the issue of public trust and understanding around charities. Have charities done enough to combat negative perceptions and media coverage?

We talked about outdated public images of charities – particularly the ‘stick to your knitting’ attitude around campaigning and advocacy. It is a vital role of charities to hold government and the private sector to account, but external pressures such as the Lobbying Act make this more difficult to contend with.

What about the innovative image of social enterprises – does this contribute to a negative, outdated image of charities? Or should we embrace this as a way of breaking down boundaries in civil society? As one participant put it: ‘you are either a charity or a business, and civil society is bigger than that’.

Does structure really matter then, or is it all about culture?

What about the growing number of organisations whose structure categorises them as a private company or business, but whose ethos is focussed on social change? Social enterprise not a legal structure, but a model of operation, adopted by organisations ranging from CICs, CLGs, co-operatives or even registered charities. So is it the structure of an organisation that’s important, or the cultures created around them?

Continuing with the example of how charities approach campaigning, a confident, well-informed board of charity trustees should feel able to support the campaigning activity of their organisation. However, we know that many trustees find it more difficult to cultivate this in practice, weighed down by the responsibility of managing the risks in their organisation.

Are boards of companies better at encouraging to take risk? What can we do to encourage charities to campaign? Or is it simply a matter of the culture in each organisation?

Brave governance – asking difficult questions

One participant suggested good governance requires a certain ruthlessness – a willingness to focus on mission and what is best for beneficiaries/service-users, above all else. But sometimes this can mean, for example, staff losing their jobs – a difficult decision to make, especially in a small organisation where everyone works closely together.

Taking this further, if we are wholeheartedly focussed on mission, one role of governance should be to ask ‘does this organisation still need to exist, or is there a better way to bring about change?’ How many of us are brave enough to be turkeys voting for Christmas, in order to further our cause?

Who do we involve in governance and how can we make it more inclusive/diverse?

Hiring board members can be difficult – looking for the right skills, understanding of the issue, financial and legal expertise. Are boards keeping up-to-date with changes in how organisations work – for example, looking for digital expertise?

Being a trustee or board member is a big commitment and structural factors narrow the pool of people who can take on the role. How and when meetings are run, for example, can mean that only those who can afford to take time out of work or caring responsibilities can attend.

And where is the voice of the service-user/beneficiary in all of this? It may sound like a great idea to bring a beneficiary or service-user on board – but they must be supported to play a full role, not just tick a box.

Andrew Purkis has written a blog on the challenges around this issue – and the need to focus more on ‘diversity of experience, skills and mindset, all geared to pursuing the particular cause of the charity’.

If you have any thoughts you would like to share on this ‘burning issue’, or any of the questions raised, please get in touch. Stay up to date on the latest social change thinking, and take part in future debates, by signing up to our newsletter and following us on social media.

Rachel Cain



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