Charity leadership in the age of populism

by Lucy Caldicott

With populist politicians taking power around the globe in recent years and a rise of extremes in politics, I’ve been thinking a lot about what effective leadership could and should look like at this time.

The divisive and turbulent political backdrop combined with the voluntary sector’s own challenges coping with rising demand for our services, competition for funds, issues of safeguarding, and a critical media landscape can feel overwhelming. But, whilst we can’t control what goes on around us, we do all have choices about how we behave and how we respond. We’re all leaders in our own spheres. Whether we’re young or old, black or white, we are all leaders. Just look at Greta Thunberg, leading the world’s conversation on climate change.

The choices we make are even more important in these fractious times so here are some thoughts.

Firstly, it’s important to be aware that against this challenging backdrop, it’s the more vulnerable among us who will feel even more vulnerable. The very people charities exist to serve. Whether we work in human rights, poverty alleviation, climate change, refugee support, humanitarian relief, we all know that it’s those people already living precarious existences or already facing discrimination who will suffer most from the policies implemented by the Trumps and Bolsanaros of this world.

Populist parties claim to represent the “people” not only against the establishment or elites, but also against immigrants, ethnic, sexual or religious minorities. So look out for the people around you who might need support, ask them what they need, and make sure they know they can count on you.

This requires us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and to remember that while we might feel uncertain and worried about the future, there are always going to be people who feel more uncertain and more worried. Populism undermines the establishment but maybe that gives civil society a unique opportunity to occupy an important role during this time of vacuum of political leadership. Our colleagues in programme teams and service delivery roles can act as positive authority figures and offer alternative support structures. This is what we do every day anyway.

Our organisations are going to continue to be needed more than ever to solve problems and save lives. We must therefore ensure our organisations are fit for the future. Populism, however, beguiles people with easy solutions to difficult problems. Inconvenient facts are dismissed as “Project Fear” by people who say “we’ve had enough of experts”.

It’s important that charities mustn’t pander to this and think very carefully about our messaging so we’re not hoodwinking our supporters by making them believe change is simple, cheap, or quick. This means not relying on short term, narrow thinking but building relationships for the long term and adapting all the time. I would argue it’s worth considering radical transformations in our organisations to ensure they’re as effective as they can be.

In order to help us adapt I am absolutely convinced that we need to be brave enough to hear a wide range of points of view, including those we might not agree with and to do this we need different types of staff working at every level of our organisations. As organisations that exist to serve society, we need to represent society. Over recent years, I’ve done a lot of work on equality, diversity and inclusion in the charity sector, and every piece of evidence shows just how far we’ve got to go before we can claim to be representative.

We also need to ensure that we’re grounded in the reality of the issues that we’re working on. Ideally we should also be aiming for people with personal experience of those issues working at every level of our organisations, including at trustee level, to ensure the solutions we’re providing are the right ones.  

In extraordinary times, ordinary people, each one of us, need to be ready to step up and do extraordinary things. This really is no time to sit on the fence and this is why, as difficult as it has been, I applaud the women who’ve spoken out against wrongdoing in various parts of the charity sector so that we can all learn and do better for the future. It’s been difficult to hear these women’s truths without hearing them we can’t learn and do better.

In this era of populism, we’re going to be busy and we’re going to get tired and frustrated so we’re going to need to look after ourselves and each other. Self-care is hugely important, as is the care and support we can give and offer. Find your support networks. Find nourishing things to do. You’ll find me in the garden whenever I’ve got a spare moment.

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