At The Gathering last week, I was fortunate to share a platform with the First Minister and other third sector leaders.
I made a simple call which resonated strongly with the audience in the room and on social media – if we are serious about changing lives, we must unleash the power of the third sector.
It’s rewarding, of course, to find common cause with colleagues across our sector. And I’m heartened by the response I got.
But talk achieves nothing unless it’s heeded. It’s action which changes lives.
A relationship built on stability and reciprocity
It’s worth reflecting for a moment on what I meant. And what I didn’t mean.
I didn’t mean more of the same. I didn’t mean a bigger slice of a smaller cake. I didn’t mean tinkering with commissioning and procurement.
I meant a fundamental shift in the relationship between the state – at national and local level – and the third sector.
A new relationship predicated not on contingency and dependency but on stability and reciprocity.
For too long now we have been told the third sector is valued and respected in Scotland. And yet we remain, for the most part, at the end of a supply chain.
The Gathering came hard on the heels of the launch of the Independent Care Review’s reports – welcomed across the political spectrum and by national and local agencies both public and voluntary.
For Aberlour, one of the most important aspects of the review’s findings was that they put poverty centre stage. We know from our work with families that more money on the table makes the single biggest difference.
The response of the First Minister, who announced the review three years ago, was quick and clear. Her engagement with care experienced voices throughout the review’s journey is testament to her personal commitment.
Delivering on The Promise will require whole system change
But whole system change – which is what delivering on The Promise will depend on – requires a whole system response. That response must be sustained over time – and across organisational boundaries.
Every report produced in the last decade – and more – has told us we need joined-up delivery, early intervention and better transitions planning. But we have not turned fine words into action.
There will always be a need to protect children. But we are still taking children into care when, all too often, they just need the right support at the right time.
Not once but through the life course. Prevention is not a one-off.
The cost of not providing that support – to the state and, critically, to children and families – is far too high for a country with Scotland’s aspirations.
Nearly a decade ago, the Christie Commission called for public services to be built around people and communities. In practice, they have become more remote.
It also called for the prioritisation of prevention. Yet all too often the state’s response to families has become more punitive.
We can do things differently – and the third sector can be the agent of change Scotland needs to make a real and lasting difference in communities. But only if we have a seat at the table – not in the waiting room.
This is not an argument about who is better placed to deliver change. It is not a case of public sector bad, third sector good.
It is about recognising the distinct contributions each sector can make – and the potential of genuine cooperation between us. A relationship based on equality and respect.
The third sector is often seen as an agile and innovative option – and it can be. But too often it is seen as a cheaper alternative to local authorities strapped for cash.
Harnessing the third sector relationships with communities is key
The real value of the third sector is its relationship with communities. Harnessing that relationship is the key to unleashing the power I spoke of at The Gathering. That is how we can make a difference to people’s lives.
It is all too easy for this to look like self-interest. If what we do in the third sector is driven only by the business case and not by our values and outcomes for the people we work with, we will fail.
For me, three values really matter – authenticity, honesty and accessibility.
The people we work with need to know they can trust us, that we will deliver on our promises and be there when they need us.
The findings of the Civil Society Futures Inquiry in England, chaired by Julia Unwin, offer some valuable insights about how civil society can shape the future together.
The third sector in Scotland would do well to reflect on the review’s findings and its PACT proposition. PACT stands for Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust.
Living up to our values means recognising that there needs to be a shift in power.
Trust rather than money must be our core currency
For too long many of us have focused on accountability to funders and to government. It’s time we all focused on accountability to the communities and people we exist to serve.
We need to build deeper, closer relationships with communities. It is in those connections that reciprocity is delivered. Not making promises but keeping them.
Trust, rather than money, must be our core currency. Our purpose is to change lives not to simply to win business.
If we are serious about making any of this happen, it will have profound implications for the way we work as third sector providers.
We cannot ask for the power of the third sector to be unleashed unless we practice what we preach. Power belongs ultimately not in our hands but in the hands of the communities we are here for.
SallyAnn Kelly, Chief Executive, Aberlour