Why democratic decision making in the voluntary sector will strengthen collaborative working and whole systems approaches

Mark Swift: CEO Wellbeing Enterprises

Change happens at the speed of trust

The third sector is playing a critical role on the front line during the Covid-19 crisis. From supplying people with essentials like food and medication; offering advice or counselling, or a listening ear for those who are lonely and/or isolated, the sectors efforts are responding to the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs of citizens during these unprecedented times. It is likely that demand for voluntary sector support will grow substantially and for years to come as the full psychological impact of Covid-19 is laid to bear and as the economic consequences of lock down begin to manifest. Such demand will of course be most acute in areas of greatest disadvantage and especially so if the financial burden of this crisis falls heaviest on the shoulders of those who can least afford it, as was the case after the 2008 economic crisis. In what ways then, can the voluntary sector adapt to the complexity of the challenges that lie ahead, in terms of meeting the widening needs of communities, and harnessing the strengths and capabilities of citizens to build back better? I explore some ideas below which are based on my experiences working with voluntary sector partners in the areas where my organisation Wellbeing Enterprises CIC operates. My take home message is that we need to encourage participatory and democratic decision making in the voluntary sector to strengthen collaborative working between sector players, with citizens and wider stakeholders. Doing so will enable the sector to collaborate more effectively as part of a whole systems approach to improving wellbeing and life chances.

The factors that support collaboration

There is an incredible amount of goodwill and generosity in the voluntary sector, and it is often in times of crisis that this is more outwardly visible as organisations come together to synergize efforts. I outline below some of the key factors that I believe have helped support greater dialogue and collaboration between voluntary sector partners during the Covid-19 crisis:

1.    The use of digital technology – platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts have been extraordinarily helpful in connecting a wide range of voluntary, community, faith, and social enterprise organisations with each other, with citizens and with public sector agencies. These technologies have been an enabler for building more effective dialogue with partners and stakeholders and I have personally enjoyed meeting new people, and learning first-hand about the work of organisations of all different sizes - from large charities to self-help groups. It has reaffirmed to me just how important everyone’s contribution is throughout this crisis and beyond it. There will of course always be a need and desire for meeting in person (I’m reminded of the saying ‘in a world full of iPads and iPhones, let’s not forget the value of eyeballs!’), however I do think technology can offer a helpful workaround for the logistical challenges of convening larger numbers of voluntary organisations. I hope as we move forward, that the convening power of digital technology is harnessed more widely to ensure there is greater opportunity for open debate, the setting of collective priorities and as a tool to support democratic decision making in the sector and with communities.

2.    Developing a shared sense of purpose – there is no doubt that this crisis has helped crystallize a strong sense of shared purpose among partners in the areas where I work. Minimising harm and safeguarding the most vulnerable has most certainly been an overarching priority and understandably so. I think this growing sense of shared purpose has helped to focus the sectors collective attention ‘outwardly’ on the community and enabled greater dialogue with citizens and stakeholders about what matters to them and what support and assistance they would like to see. It has also encouraged greater dialogue between sector professionals and citizens about how we might shape the future. I have enjoyed conversations with colleagues about how we can come together in a more integrated way in future so that we can work with the complexity of the social challenges that communities are facing, rather than focusing on downstream, proximal issues which often fail to deliver lasting results. It has also enabled more of us to open up about the things that matter to each of us individually and collectively which has strengthened relationships and has sparked all sorts of imaginative ideas and potential future solutions. For example there has been much discussion about how collective campaigning and activism might mobilise the grassroots energy for change in communities which is often a perquisite for social movements to take root if we are to build back better, together.

3.    Sharing knowledge and resources – the magnitude of the challenges this crisis presents has facilitated more collaborative working in the voluntary sector. This is a positive development, as collaboration is not always a simple and straightforward ask, because competition for finite resources in the voluntary sector often promotes the antithesis of collaboration and can hinder the transformative societal change it advocates. There are of course many factors that have led to unhelpful competition in the sector; the introduction of new public management approaches in the public sector, ever reducing funding streams (especially so in times of austerity), and long standing, hierarchical power differentials that can result in ‘dominate’ organisations commanding resources and putting the breaks on alternative ways of working. Despite these longstanding issues, there is lots of goodwill and generosity in the sector which I have found personally moving and especially so during lock down. For example, staff and volunteers willing to go above and beyond their duties to help citizens and partner organisations; the gifting of resources and supplies; sharing networks and information and providing practical and emotional support to each other. This generosity and goodwill in the sector is one of its greatest attributes and will become ever more important as the sector shifts towards whole systems approaches which prioritise sharing and learning as critical success factors.

Building back better

So, what about the future? Having outlined my observations of the factors that I believe have enabled greater collaboration in the voluntary sector in the places where I work, how then might we secure these gains for the future? I think the current crisis has provided an opportunity for sector partners to work more closely together. The convening power of digital technology has provided a platform for sector professionals and stakeholders to connect on a personal and professional level, and it has also enabled greater diversity of views and opinions during debates, all of this is helping to build trust, mutual respect and solidarity in the sector. These gains could be augmented by co-creating democratic decision-making processes so that sector players can debate and vote on proposed courses of action and so they are more able to directly influence the future direction of the sector locally and regionally. This is especially pertinent now as more partners take an active interest in the sectors collective response to the Covid-19 crisis. Finally, it is encouraging to observe how voluntary organisations are focusing more intently on the common ground that unites them and less so on that which divides them as this crisis unfolds. This is resulting in more organisations being willing to share knowledge and resources and is promoting a culture of learning and collaboration.

Interestingly, the factors that I believe are enabling greater collaboration in the voluntary sector throughout this crisis, are also those that give voice and agency to sector players. They enable more voluntary organisations to have a say about what they would like to see happen in the sector. They also afford opportunities to strengthen relationships between actors and organisations, and this in turn encourages healthy debate, consensus building and compromise, rather than unilateral action. For collaborative working to become the new normal, everyone who has a part to play in bringing about societal change needs to feel heard, understood, and respected. This is impossible to achieve when battles for power play out in the sector which inevitably lead to winners and losers. For the voluntary sector to transition seamlessly into the ‘new world’ and become system change agents it must strengthen participatory and democratic decision making in the sector so that power is truly distributive.

One way to achieve this is through the creation of voluntary sector congress or assembly structures in local areas, in which voluntary sector organisations vote to elect their representatives for defined tenures, and who then hold them to account through those democratic structures. Voluntary organisations can vote to champion sector priorities that matter most to them and these can be debated openly and constructively together. These sorts of democratic structures will ensure the diverse views and opinions of sector members are heard and it can also mitigate the risks of vested interests taking precedence over the needs of the whole sector. Democratic decision-making in the voluntary sector will strengthen collaborative working and encourage greater reciprocity, good will and trust among sector players. This is vitally important because change happens at the speed of trust. No quicker, no slower.