Purpose, governance and engagement - why third sector organisations must face the big questions - RSA

Purpose, governance and engagement - why third sector organisations must face the big questions


(A short blog today as it’s already late, it’s Monday and I had some really good comments over the weekend so have already spent an hour on my site!)

We had an interesting session here this morning with a range of people from third sector organisations discussing issues around legitimacy, accountability and public value. The discussion deserves a fuller report but I’ll leave that to Katherine Hudson (who has promised to comment on this post).

Having listened to a wide ranging presentation from Indy Johar of Architecture00 and Joost Beunderman from Demos, and to the case study outlined by Dick Penny who runs the Bristol Watershed Media Centre I suggested that - in thinking about their public value - third sector organisations need to examine three distinct issues:

• Purpose and methods – what are we for and how do we work?

• Governance – how, and to whom, are we accountable?

• Engagement – how do we connect to the people we are supposed to serve?

When organisations are first created the three questions have one answer but through a process of organisational entropy the answers start to diverge. In many organisations (and I have to admit the RSA is sometimes one) the long standing formal structures of accountability can actually impede wider engagement. Other organisations may have gone through major changes in their aims and methods without being sure what this means for how they are governed or how they engage (this is Watershed’s issue).    


As I said in a recent blog about membership organisations, many new charities are being set up with minimalist governance structures (akin to a private company). This doesn’t mean they don’t want to consult, engage or be answerable - just that they don’t see this being assisted by a cumbersome or quasi democratic internal governance.

But if a charity or social enterprise is having an impact, if it is receiving public money or acting with a public mandate, isn’t it important that it has robust governance? If an organisation has a long history where do today’s managers and Trustees get the authority to reform that mission?

These are tough questions. They lie behind some of the governance reforms we are putting in place here at the RSA. For too many organisations reforming, and seeking to align governance, purpose and engagement, feels like too much hard and distracting work. But a failure to examine, to modernise and to align will sooner or later undermine any organisation.

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