If millions of years of evolution have taught us one thing, it’s that it is better to live in a society where we support each other. When we give, our brains reward us with a dopamine high.This might inspire confidence amongst those concerned for the future of charities and the voluntary sector, as we’re unlikely to evolve this mechanism away any time soon. But there’s a problem: we can only give what we have.
Those that give the most are the middle classes: managers and professionals. Herein lies the first key problem for the future: we are facing a dramatic thinning out of jobs in the professional and managerial classes, in the future the middle might be crushed, putting the largest individual donor base at risk.
With government funding under pressure too, many organisations have turned their attentions to corporate funders. The need for companies to soften their images through relationships with organisations that do good will not go away any time soon. But reliance on corporate donations is by its nature a less stable form of funding.
Traditional campaign groups are being outmanoeuvred and outpaced by a new wave of digitally-native organisations.
Funding isn’t the sector’s only challenge: there is more competition for the public’s attention. Traditional campaign groups are being outmanoeuvred and outpaced by a new wave of digitally-native organisations. Call it clicktivism, call it slacktivism, the last three years have seen the dramatic rise of a new form of engagement. Organisations like SumOfUs, Change.org and Avaaz have gathered millions of members. These efforts have delivered results, but not everyone likes the methods. Causes are selected because they are popular or winnable, not just because of their importance.
So what’s a charity to do?
If middle-class jobs are thinned out, people will have more time on their hands. It’s unlikely they won’t work at all, but it will increasingly be for part of the week. What will they do for the rest? There is an opportunity and a challenge to rebrand volunteering, removing the scent of talcum powder as one insider described it to me recently.
There’s also a chance to leverage the things that charities and voluntary organisations have in abundance: good will, brand and reach. Some ruthless thought about where they might be able to compete could create some very powerful new revenue streams.
The future of the voluntary sector is not doom and gloom, but it is different. Succeeding in this environment requires early thought, and a willingness to act now, not waiting for events or referenda to determine your future.
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Interested in the future of the third sector? We’re having a free event on at The Gathering on 19 February.