Thoughts in Development: On Progress in the social sectors

Adam O'Boyle2 Apr 2015Sector Debates

I often wonder whether the most frustrating/challenging thing about working in the charity/nonprofit sector is a sense, so often, that the fruits of your labours are all too likely to be wasted. That something that you might have worked on for a number of months, or perhaps even years, will fail, fade away and be forgotten, perhaps just for a while, but perhaps forever. Most often this happens with the ending of funding for a particular programme or initiative, because any ‘innovation’ has never quite reached sustainability and an ability to embed its impact for the long-term. We’re just not very good at ‘making progress’.

For example, at Student Hubs over the past seven years we have been carrying out historical research into the student volunteering/social action sector which shows that over the past 150 years, successive decades have often invented, grown and then ultimately lost a support system for students to do extraordinary things in the community. Student Hubs is the successor in a long line of such interventions. It would be nice to think we were standing on the shoulders of giants, but in fact it often feels like we are just reinventing the wheel. A wheel that has been lost somewhere along the way but which we vaguely know must have been invented in the past.

What could we do to overcome such a challenge? Is there a way we could design social sector initiatives to in some way ‘bank’ progress so that, assuming no particular change in the amount of social need, people could make cumulative progress towards a goal?

Before anyone gets worried about any dodgy theories of change knocking about in the argument, let’s make clear that just as it is important not to hark back to any ‘golden age’ in which we were all at one with nature, skipping merrily through fields, free from cares (the garden of Eden is not an historical fact essentially), it is important not to believe in any linear or logical path to progress or march of history. The seeds of such thinking run deep from the Enlightenment and have tripped up many Hegelian and Marxist philosopher and more recently a good number of politicians and bankers. The end of history is not in fact here as yet, just the end of humility.

Nevertheless, is the idea of progress, in any form, some great fallacy or can we imagine it to be possible? Well, I personally do believe in some form of progress, or at least have hope for one. And that’s not to say that it will be achieved, or there will be any linear form (it’s clear that with climate catastrophe looming, this isn’t looking to be a century that sees the human race doing its finest work). But I am hopeful for the human spirit and in human endeavour and believe that we can, when committed, put our minds and bodies to work and achieve great things. Progress in the health system shows that we have, over recent centuries, made huge progress to eradicate some of the most deadly diseases. Do we see such progress around us in much of the social sectors today? In a way yes, in a way no.

Let’s first look at this idea of ‘banking progress’. In many other sectors, there is a very good way of doing this, from which people can develop activities at a later stage:

  • In academia there is a very extensively developed publishing framework around which most knowledge revolves. Journals, books, even PhD theses are published and with the advent of online publishing and cataloguing, are now immediately searchable. It is of course every PhD student’s nightmare that they come across their work in an exact form elsewhere, but such a system does allow some cumulative progression of knowledge. Such a cumulative process may lock academia into errant thinking (see Thomas Piketty on the plight of micro economics) and radical departures in knowledge aren’t linear developments but I’d say this is a little healthier than what we see in the social sectors today.
  • In technology and the private sector the patent system does much the same thing. Whether the patent system was set up for such a purpose, I don’t know, and expect not (more likely so that profits could be extracted from any invention) but it achieves the same thing. You can’t come along and easily reinvent the wheel because someone will tell you that was done c.4000BC
  • Again health. Though provision of healthcare is hugely contentious at the moment, especially with recent changes to the NHS, it cannot be denied that it is at least possible to set some fairly objective standards as to what good healthcare looks like, and that problems that troubled us in the past are now either eradicated or much less problematic.

In plenty of other sectors you see ‘progress’ at least defined along some path – even if the wrong one. Athletes get faster, stronger, Skyscrapers get taller, cheaper etc. In some of the social sectors, or at least in the more ‘innovative’ arenas of the social sectors (so I’d want to leave charities like Cancer Research out of things largely)?

The question remains is what marker you use to assess progress. It may not be such a good thing that everything gets more ‘efficient’ for example, or in the above examples, that, for example, microeconomics gets more niche. An professor on the philosophy of accounting I heard once remarked that when walking about New York he could really see accounting at play, with its efficient use of space, no frills building, cheap materials. In Oxford, not so much. If you’re using accounting efficiency as your market of progress, you tend to build fewer gargoyles and follies onto the side of your buildings.

Yet, in the social sectors it’s often hard to think that you are making progress along any scale, accounting, impact, sustainability or otherwise. The process isn’t so much linear as haphazard, perhaps random, as if the system is conspiring against you.

Such a lack of ‘progress’ in many situations is not always a problem:

  • In the innovation journey you would expect some loss, that’s natural. Progress doesn’t mean that everything survives indefinitely. ‘Progress’ involves sifting the good from the bad.
  • Organisations shouldn’t survive indefinitely. It would be a strange marker of progress if organisations like Blockbusters or Kodak were propped up indefinitely when new technology came along which clearly supersedes it, or their original purpose has been fulfilled. (There is of course always a market for hobbies, art and nostalgia – my photographer friend Tom has just started to get back into polaroid film).

But normally such ability to make ‘progress’ is essential for any endeavour and team:

  • Efforts are ultimately hopeless otherwise
  • Rest stops can be created where you can reach a certain point, safe in the knowledge that you achieved something, before pressing onto the next goal.
  • Because some of our more ‘intractable’ problems could perhaps be tackled properly if we could take cumulative chunks out of a wider problem.

Birth, Growth, Decline, Death and Rebirth is a natural part of the cycle of life. Or as it’s Easter, Birth, Death and Resurrection if you will.

But in the social sectors there isn’t the option of saying “well at least I got paid well, even if we achieved nothing”. If that were the case, you might as well have gone to work elsewhere. Ingrained within the very job is a need to achieve something definite, to have an impact, to supplement the fact that you aren’t working for money or other reward.

My sense from working in the social sectors is that progress is an elusive pursuit of a peculiar kind. I have written about the collapse of the charity BeatBullying elsewhere, but it seems to me that out of many many years of development and progress in the world of that charity – which drew international acclaim and attracted very significant sums of funding – very little will be salvaged. It seems to be that would not be the case in more fluid and well functioning arenas. In the for profit world, as in nature, there is an ability to take from the ashes of any endeavour, something positive. Vultures pick over a corpse for any last remaining piece of value. If a company goes bankrupt, the administrators will try to unpick value from the embers. If Beatbullying goes bankrupt?

Much of this is perhaps because so much social sector knowledge exists intangibly as knowledge. But hence the importance then of ‘banking’ that knowledge in ways. I’m not sure what these thoughts lead to. Maybe this is our perennial challenge for the social sectors. But I’m no nihilist, so I’m still convinced there must be another way.

Question: What can be done to assist us with making progress?

Author: Adam O'Boyle

Adam O'Boyle is Executive Director of Hub Ventures. Adam co-founded Student Hubs in September 2007 during a sabbatical from his History and Economics degree and rejoined as Executive Director upon graduating in July 2009. During that time Adam also worked as a part-time analyst for New Philanthropy Capital where he co-authored a research report entitled: ‘Critical masses: Social campaigning, a guide for donors and funders’.