It’s the easiest thing in the world to assume that things are going to carry on as they are. Major, cataclysmic change is a thing of the past.
I think that anyone who was under that impression has been put right by the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and various governments’ responses to both. It turns out that we can completely reconfigure our economies and our ways of living if we decide to, although this particular set of circumstances is probably not much fun for most people at the moment.
The great irony is, though, that we could have seen these things coming if we had looked carefully enough. Scientists were issuing warnings about pandemic risk well in advance of 2020. The fury and grief felt by black people was in full evidence for anyone who bothered to listen. And we all know climate change is under way, along with a mass extinction event, although many of us probably have our heads in the sand about how bad these could get.
This isn’t a new or original observation, by any means. George Eliot acknowledged the risk of complacency back in 1861 when she wrote Silas Marner:
“The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is… constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink.”
What interests me is how the charity sector will respond to all of the above. Most of us are aware that climate change is likely to cause suffering to many of the communities that we serve. Not only that: how will it affect investments and mortgages on properties that may be at risk from, for example, flooding and wildfires? What will be the knock-on effects to our donors? How may they choose to prioritise their giving in future? And how can we think about all of this when we are dealing with today’s challenges?
I’m afraid I don’t have any definite answers for you, but I do believe that we can’t deal with each challenge separately. Although bad things can happen and compound in their severity very quickly, the same is also true of positive action. More black representation on the boards of charitable trusts may help to prevent small, black-led charities shutting down in the face of Covid-19 pressures. Listening to communities that are most vulnerable to climate change will lead to better prevention and mitigation. Finally, charities that live their values fully by divesting from fossil fuels will not only safeguard the planet, but probably also see a better return in the long term.
The path to “doing the right thing” can be fraught with difficulty, however. It was heartening, in many ways, to see Action on Hearing Loss announce that they are closing their head office and embracing home working. This will be welcome news to many, but will perhaps cause problems to those who do not have the space or facilities for home working (a problem that the charity has acknowledged and has said they are actively examining). The move to increasing accessibility can create accessibility problems for other groups.
In some ways this reminded me of RNLI’s move to a fully “opted-in” marketing policy when GDPR came in – a decision that they had to reverse. The desire to do the right thing is admirable, but hasty implementation can lead to a host of negative side-effects.
As Myles Bremner writes at the Institute of Fundraising, charities need to be agile and bold in order to adapt to the challenges we face. He highlights the importance of “clear, honest and transparent communications with stakeholders” – to which I’d add: make sure you know who all of your stakeholders are, include all of them, and remember that listening is a critical part of communication.
Enormous, epoch-defining change is happening right now, and I think that more is on the horizon. We can’t know what the future holds, or how to meet the challenges it brings. Or maybe we can, if we ask the right people.