Inequality, poverty, violence, the climate emergency… making progress can seem daunting. What can any one individual, any one organisation, any one nation do?
The good news is that it is possible to change the world. Over time, there is no shortage of evidence of where charity and mutual aid has been able to – from access to clean water and healthcare through to disability and women’s rights. As a result of efforts like this, the needs of countless people have been better met.
The lesson is that lasting progress comes when systems change and power is distributed in new, more open ways.
We have explored this in our conference on the theme of ‘The Power of Charity’ opened by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, along with Sally Bailey, Chair of Trustees at Pilotlight.
Organising for change through the voluntary sector is at the heart of why Pilotlight exists. It is in the nature of the sector that hopes run ahead of resources. Our purpose is to add the skills needed to make a success of what charities do. ‘Great causes deserve great talent’ is our watchword.
This is the field of ‘pro bono’, or skills-based volunteering. As the talents that we focus on are professional skills, often found more readily in the private sector, we act as a bridge to help bring these into the voluntary sector. At the same time, the skills of the voluntary sector are also compelling learning for those outside who want to act in an inclusive way in the context of social and environmental challenges. So we see that there can be a mutuality of interest. What we characterise as ‘skills sharing’ is a progressive power shift from a traditional model in which skills go one way, from active donors to passive recipients. In turn, this new field of mutuality starts to challenge the current way in which the economy is organised, giving status and power only to those who generate a commercial income.
In the UK, the landscape for pro bono is fragmented and weak. There are over six million people who are classed as professionals, but only a small proportion who share their skills for the common good. The pathways for skills sharing and connections across economic sectors are weak. What this means is that those who want to give their time and skills do not find it easy to do so. And those who are in need of support in the voluntary sector find it hard to get. In the words of one academic, Professor Rob MacMillan, such infrastructure in the UK is in a state of “disorganisation”.
This can’t be resolved through one organisation, one firm or one set of charities. Pro bono work has focused on inputs at the individual or the organisational level, but for lasting social change, we need to operate at the systems level.
So, over the coming ten years, we want to make a systems change, to bring about a fundamental shift in the field of pro bono action, to realise the potential it has to be a catalyst for social change. The two key dynamics that we are exploring to achieve this are to innovate and to collaborate.
In ten years’ time, if we are successful, there will be a joined up skills based support system across the UK and wider for charities and social enterprises.
We don’t assume that this system is a single organisation and nor is it simply the result of growth in one existing organisation, including our work at Pilotlight. Rather we assume that this system can only be achieved if we and others in the field are open to options to innovate and to partner or integrate so that we co-create this over time.
It will need a focus on quality, technology and collaboration and a commitment to sharing power and widening the circle of equity and inclusion. But done well, pro bono support can be an effective and complementary force for good in relation to any of the current social and environmental challenges.
It could make all the difference if as a society we are to achieve our sustainable development goals. Our current work for example contributes to five United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: 1 – no poverty; 5 – gender equality; 10 – reduced inequalities; 11 – sustainable cities and communities; 17 – partnerships for the goals. In ten years time, we aim to expand this, in line with the wider role of civil society and see the system of pro bono support we are working towards as contributing to all Sustainable Development Goals.
Our ambition is undimmed, our commitment all the greater given the challenges ahead facing society. There are unmet needs with poverty accelerating as we look to come out of the pandemic and with dramatic challenges in the context of the climate emergency. Can the voluntary sector, and wider social economy, rise to these new challenges? The answer lies in the quality of its organisation.
In the spirit of this, I would like to ask you to consider inviting your friends and colleagues to take a look at Pilotlight and at pro bono, so that we reach out to a wider set of people who are interested in giving back better at a time of need.
We want to change the world. And working together, we have a plan to do just that.