How to grow good ideas in the charity sector

Civil Society, by Genevieve Maitland Hudson

One of the most serious issues facing our sector is the expansionary nature of capitalism, or at least the unchallenged idea that we should accept its logic. That includes going along with the logic of growth and of the ‘minimal viable specification’ approach to scaling ‘good ideas’ that are developed by charities. David Ainsworth puts this logic very neatly in his article on charities’ failure to grow. Charities develop good ideas, he says, and they could benefit more people if they grew, or failing that, if they made those ideas available in some suitably packaged ‘replicable’ form. This, in the jargon, maximises impact. His argument stirred much sector emotion, and several threads that are worth a read.

What is the argument against that logic? Well, the difficulty is that local social programmes rarely work like that, as many Twitter commentators pointed out. Typically the value of a local charity, social enterprise, or community business lies in the relationships that it builds with local people. It is the relational nature of the service that takes it beyond being a straightforwardly replicable intervention. To take an example: The Holy Cross Centre Trust has recently drafted a paper (forthcoming) in which it outlines how the organisation’s work – embedded, personal and connected – breaks the ‘problem-service’ paradigm to achieve “genuinely sustainable and preventative change” for the people it helps.

HCCT’s paper outlines how they have gone about their work, and shares the elements of an approach that could be replicated, but the local roots that make that approach work, cannot. They need to be developed slowly and patiently by a dedicated group of people who are rooted in the local area. They are not a movable feast. This does not mean that approaches like HCCT’s can’t be developed by other groups, even by other groups affiliated to HCCT. This approach to growth is one that is being developed by the Mayday Trust, for instance. It does mean though that expansion has to be realised in ways that achieve intended aims. Growth of the kind that focuses on maximised value – or impact – is unlikely to do that. It is not the packaged intervention that needs to be sold on, it’s the local knowledge, the care, the concern and the permanence that need to be developed in more places, without these things the ‘idea’ is unlikely to take root.

This isn’t, in fact, an impossible way of growing a beneficial service, or business. Early building societies grew in exactly this way, not by setting up branches and developing a transactional system of mortgages – though that did come later – but by running a network of agents who were embedded in local communities.

The Co-operative Permanent Building Society, now Nationwide, which grew 11% per year between 1901 and 1914, achieved its growth, which was twice that of the movement as a whole, through its network of agencies. Its agents were, for the most part, managers of co-operative shops who had deep local knowledge on which the national organisation could rely. It also grew fast whilst specifically targeting working-class owner-occupation much more successfully than its competitors. This is a very different, more locally rooted, agile, and almost certainly cheaper, approach to the growth of successful practice than evidence repositories held by umbrella bodies, one of the recommendations that percolated through the online discussion, and of which there are now many examples.

This is a question of dynamics of power, and the locus of knowledge. Umbrella bodies collating academic evidence and pushing expert knowledge down, are very different entities to local organisations building lasting relationships and operating through effective networks. If we want to see the social economy develop, and the wider distribution of good practice and good ideas, we need to understand our own logic of growth. That should not mean small charities growing fast, backed by expensive debt to deliver increasingly algorithmic interventions (however well-evidenced), but networks of affiliated agencies with shared aims working in partnership with their communities for long-term change. It is this recognition that is driving many trusts, foundations and commissioners, including Power to Change, to develop place-based approaches to funding and investment. The aim is to grow local and more equal economies, rather than larger charities.