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Time to hold up the mirror

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  • Picture of Menai Owen-Jones FRSA
    Menai Owen-Jones FRSA
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It is undoubted we are facing a time of enormous upheaval and also unprecedented opportunities in Wales and beyond. The question is, are voluntary organisations in Wales fit for the future?

Never before has the world changed at such a fast pace, with such complexity. There are big societal challenges of our time: climate change, poverty, mistrust of institutions and divisions in our society, with people feeling disconnected, disenfranchised and ignored. There are also key opportunities too, like technological advances that can lead to positive changes.

The voluntary sector is at a cross roads in our ability and preparedness to engage with these big long term societal changes and the relevance of civil society is being questioned.

Do we have a role in shaping a positive future?

Over hundreds of years, civil society has changed society itself, both in Wales and beyond; it has done so by responding with real conviction to what’s happening, because it’s the right thing to do.

As a sector we are driven by the belief of making a difference, by passion, principles and by giving voluntarily to help others and our communities. This is why our sector is so important to shaping a positive, more united, future.

If we hold up the mirror, what does it really say?

There is much to celebrate in our work as voluntary organisations, with inspirational examples of volunteering, organisations, charities and community groups, changing lives and positively impacting communities across Wales.

Saying that, if we hold the mirror to the sector, we must ask the question what do we honestly see? Are we truly fit for the future currently?

Opportunities for change

Trust really matters:

Trust in the voluntary sector continues to be a hot topic hitting the headlines, for various reasons, including serious safeguarding incidents and fundraising scandals in the sector. Lack of trust will stop us achieving our purpose as voluntary organisations. Trust was a resonating theme in the findings of the Civil Society Futures Inquiry that published its final report last year, looking at the future of civil society. The Inquiry clearly highlighted the fundamental challenges we face as a sector, and highlighted not only the deep divides in our society, but the divides within civil society itself, stemming from the lack of trust between organisations. Collectively we must prioritise building trust – within the sector, across sectors and with the public.

We need to look at ourselves and how we behave. Are we sharing resources? Are we being open and collaborative? Are we acting working together as well as we could?

Leading into the future:

We need courageous leadership in the sector now more than ever. Boards of trustees and leaders who embrace change and trial new things, who are focussed on preparedness for the uncertain future ahead. We don’t know what will happen, but we can prepare and scenario plan.

Leaders who also prioritise values, like kindness and empathy, and embrace diversity in all its forms and are inclusive in how they work, are key to the future.

So many people in society currently feel unheard; do people in our organisations feel unheard too? Are we listening to young people for example? Sector leaders should make sure they are listening to all stakeholders and hearing opinions, even if the opinions make us feel uncomfortable or the points of view are different to our own.

The funding conundrum:

Funding is always a challenge for the voluntary sector and will continue to be a major issue in the future, especially with the unprecedented economic uncertainties that lie ahead.

Organisations should not be relying on one, or a handful of funders for example; this is high risk. Instead working to develop new and diverse income streams is fundamental to risk management and enables organisations to be more robust.

In Wales, there is an opportunity to help develop voluntary organisations’ fundraising ability and to encourage more entrepreneurial and business skills. Developing collaborative funding solutions and partnerships should also be considered.

Thinking digitally:

Digital transformation is a very real challenge for us in voluntary organisations.

Some charities are further ahead on realising the potential of digital for their organisation. How many voluntary organisations in the sector even know about the Charity Digital Code of Practice? It’s also not just about a new website!

We need both more engagement in general with digital in voluntary organisations and more investment. Some grant funders are moving in this direction, which is good news, and providing specific funding for digital projects.

There are also opportunities for more cross-sector working and possibilities of closer working with the tech industry to support our sector in adopting technology.

Speaking with a voice that can be heard:

Lastly, now is the time for the sector to speak with a stronger voice, with more confidence. A more open environment supporting our right as voluntary organisations to campaign and advocate would support this. Campaigning is a fundamental part of civil society to create social change.

We also need to work together to make voluntary organisations more visible and prominent and on a more equal footing to the private and public sectors. Maybe it’s time to look at ways we can better measure our social contribution, to show the real value of volunteering and our sector as a whole to society?

Action leads to hope:

Voluntary organisations have a leading role in contributing positively to the future wellbeing of our communities in Wales. We should be at the forefront, setting the example to other sectors. Now is the time to act, to do things differently and to come together to find solutions to make sure civil society is fit for the future.

Menai Owen-Jones is the CEO of The Pituitary Foundation, a national support and information organisation for pituitary patients, their families, friends and carers. This article was reprinted on the RSA with the permission of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action.

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