The pandemic period has seen an increased focus on solidarity through the rise of mutual aid groups, appreciation for nurses and care workers, and action against racial inequality. Showing solidarity has been such a positive force that its absence has been keenly noted whenever those in power have fallen back on a ‘them and us’ social distancing. Colin Falconer FRSA asks whether there is more to solidarity than just how humans face a crisis and whether it can shape relationships between funders and charities in the post pandemic world.
In a recent essay, the American political scientist and sociologist Margaret Weir points to the post-war creation of the welfare state as a shining example of how an increase in solidarity can bring about longer-term institutional changes. If solidarity can be an Aristotelian force of virtue to create good, where and how might we nurture its growth now, and to what end?
According to Chris Knight, the British anthropologist and political activist, “solidarity is part of an ancient tradition – an evolutionary strategy – which long ago became central to human nature itself”. This idea of solidarity as a human instinct for survival was first advocated by the Russian activist and scholar Peter Kropotkin, who studied the use of cooperation as a survival mechanism in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Other contemporary thinkers such as educationalist Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández point to more social interpretations in terms of how we understand and enact our responsibilities to, and relationships with, each other, grounded in beliefs that define the type of ‘together’ we feel connected with. In the US, the Trump administration’s divisive response to the pandemic offers a contrary reminder of what happens when social differences and mistrust limit our potential for solidarity.
The UK has enjoyed many examples of positive solidarity over the pandemic period. In particular, through the work of frontline youth charities whose relational, person-centred approaches have been praised in new research for the Listening Fund. The research details how youth charities were encouraged to turn to their core ethos to offer ‘listening first’ practices that enabled young people to feel in control and supported. An ability to listen with people improved organisational responses to the crisis. These findings help to signal how government could recast the role of charity, not as a contracted sector delivering services to over-defined targets, but as mission-focused organisations freed up to be accountable to the lives of those they seek to benefit.
In the words of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person.” Linked to Galeano’s stress on the horizontal, the Listening Fund research found that organisations dealt effectively with the pandemic by applying highly personalised techniques that were more dependent on the quality of one-to-one relationships than the application of top-down transactional approaches. Along with 40 recommendations to support this focus, the report advocates ‘health checks’ for organisations to strengthen areas where solidarity is most likely to flourish from.
In a highly beneficial way, showing solidarity connects us with the humanity of seeing people in terms of strengths rather than problems; of working with people, not doing to them; of involving people in shaping their own solutions; of investing in people’s capacity to thrive. If these are the asset-based qualities we want from our social sector, are funders and commissioners up for the challenge of working differently so services can always operate like this? Less rules to follow, more capacity to care for each other. Just as the post-war period produced a new safety net, our transition out of lockdown could usefully seed ‘relational welfare’ models of charity, long advocated for by the British innovator Hillary Cottam.
Indeed, the real need and opportunity for greater solidarity arguably lies not in the relationship between charities and the people they work with, but with those who control their funding and outcomes. That is where greater trust to invest in core ‘ethos’ and free up space for organisations to work with their participants to define personalised goals will make the greatest social difference, as suggested in the Listening Fund research. It requires, though, an imaginative leap in funder thinking to harness investment and monitoring processes that allow organisations to evolve their services in tandem with people’s lives.
Over the pandemic, we have seen many charitable funders begin to offer more flexible approaches that express greater solidarity. For this progress to continue, it is vital that trust-focused contractual relationships are promoted at all levels of government and philanthropic support. Strong relationships are essential to influence the deeper levels of co-operation needed to nurture solidarity, and thus efforts to facilitate collaborative spaces for funders and charitable organisations to learn together will prove important. It will also need funders and commissioners to overcome their reliance on competitive, risk-focused tender and procurement processes.
There is plenty to act on. But solidarity should be as much about the action we take to change power relationships as our expressions of sympathy. The power dynamic in how we distribute funding and contracts – and measure impact – is still over dependent on vertical lines of privilege and control, and as such remains in danger of perpetuating the same inequalities that shock us in the global experience of Covid-19. If funders want to join the solidarity party with young people so admirably led by charities in the Listening Fund, they must be willing to sacrifice some of their power at the door and be open to explore relationships that everyone can share in.
Colin Falconer is Director of Inspirechilli, a training and development consultancy that brings asset-based approaches to life for organisations in the UK and overseas. Colin has worked in various education and quality assurance initiatives, including 14 years as Director of Innovation at youth charity the Foyer Federation, and delivered a TEDx speech on opening talent in young people in Thessaloniki, 2011.