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Are We Still Wearing the T-Shirt?

There are many things I share in common with friends & colleagues who have dedicated their careers to social change.

One of the main connections is that it was never the big career plan, we somehow fell into this space but as a result have had happy & fulfilling careers. At the age of 47 having, spent more than half of my life working here, I know it’s a privilege. For so many people work is a daily grind that just about mitigates the worry of being able to pay the bills & put food on the table; only last month we learnt that 4m people are living in work poverty. For those of us who have the chance to experience a sense of livelihood, progression & purpose through our day job, we should be thankful.

4 million people are living in work poverty

I am, but I’m also frustrated that we don’t make the most of the opportunity. Somewhere along the way, the activist inside us got defeated by the bureaucrat we never wanted to become. My challenge to the social sector workforce is that we have ended up spending too much of our energy running organisations rather than really working on the issues we care about. This is not an either or situation, but in some organisations the pendulum has swung too far towards ‘generic management’ that they have lost sight of the cause. Career promotion often leaves us feeling even more disconnected from the people we want to serve as our 9-5 gets taken over by the endless cycle of meetings, emails, processes, report writing & people management tasks; the daily “stuff” that every organisation seems to require. I’m concerned that we’ve become overwhelmed by the mechanics of organisational structures, not through choice or intent, but because it is a reality that acts as the block to things actually happening.

If you agree, you might have your own thoughts on how this situation has come about. The effects of the commissioning/contract culture, the impact of the recession, and the way people lead organisations all undoubtedly have a role to play. However, I would argue that the social sector has – for far too long, in my eyes – looked in the direction of the public and private sectors to mimic how to run a ‘professional organisation’ and as a result, has lost sight of its own USP: Our People.

We are great at attracting activists.

These are the people who want to make the world work better. They wear the T-shirt and have a wonderful sense of optimism. We have always attracted these people but we fail to maximise their potential because we lose sight of our own core motivations becoming more and more hoodwinked by how we think we should behave in order to run things well.

Of course core organisational and management skills are a must-have in any organisation, but we must also focus on our inherent desire for change. This quality naturally delivers real success for leaders and the people who work here. I don’t see this oversight as the fault of leaders, but rather an individual and shared responsibility to make sure that our work is hyper-connected to the issues we care about. It is, after all, the core motivation that led us to work in this space in the beginning.

There is much for each sector to learn from the other, but the social sector has activism in its DNA; it’s history of change-makers are in high demand today amongst all employers.

So let’s be proud of that, make the most of it, and think about how we can share this talent more widely for greater collective impact.

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