Are you thinking "needs"?
In advance of our major conference on need this June, Richard Piper, Head of Strategy and Impact at NCVO, suggests that charities may need to get more sophisticated in thinking about need if they want to make the biggest impact for their beneficiaries or cause.
Responding to need
Every charity is set up in response to a certain need. Often, a few people spot a problem, decide to do something about it and form a charity. This is often quite a personal decision, reflecting the views or beliefs of a handful of individuals about what is right and wrong and what should happen to make the world a better place. This is what makes our sector such a diverse, innovative and inspiring place.
I suspect though, that sometimes, these assumptions and decisions are made without real investigation into the root causes of the issues that the organisation wants to address, or without asking how this particular need fits with someone's broader needs, or without checking what other organisations are already doing in similar areas. This is true of many charities today, whatever their size, and those both new and with a long history behind them.
The key to greater impact
That’s not to say that amazing work isn't happening. Across the country, away from the public image of charity fundraising, the real work of spending money by delivering services and changing lives is often humbling in its brilliance. But we at NCVO believe that there is still a huge amount of untapped potential for our sector to create even greater impact. And the key to this is, arguably, building a richer, more accurate understanding of the needs we exist to address.
Joining up the dots
There are too few conversations within and between charities about the different needs of society. There are hundreds of thousands of charities each with their own partial 'map' of needs, but very few places in which they can come together and get a broader sense of the total needs of society, as illustrated by the Young Foundation’s recent and very important study Sinking and Swimming: Understanding Britain’s unmet needs.
At the same time there are some real problems with the concept of 'need', not least the power dynamic that it unleashes. If you define me as someone in need, then a particular relationship has been created which puts you in control. Concepts of wellbeing and empowerment and user participation are partly about undermining some of the paternalistic attitudes that can be expressed when one person identifies a need in someone else. But do these actually work? Are they actually rebalancing these power issues?
Putting needs centre stage
I am convinced that these fundamental questions should be brought out of the shadows to take centre stage in all our thinking. Every charity should have an up-to-date, holistic and evidence-based understanding of the needs they are addressing. How else can we ensure that our vision, mission, strategy and services are valid? How can we hope to create the impact we want to see, if our interpretation of the problem is flawed? And without a firm case, what hope do we have of attracting long-term support from funders, donors and others?
As a first step to tackling these tough questions, we are co-hosting with the Young Foundation a one day national conference on need in June, providing a forum for organisations to sharpen their thinking and share their ideas on the topic. I'd love to see you there.
What's your view?
Do you agree with Richard? Share your thoughts here.