This post by Anna Visser is based on a talk on the same topic from Anna given at the Benefacts launch which you can listen to below.
I have been a member of the Benefacts stakeholder group over the past year or so. I joined the group not long after The Advocacy Initiative finished. The Advocacy Initiative was a civil society project (that I was lucky enough to run) that spent three years exploring the future of social justice advocacy and campaigning in Ireland.
There are similarities between what the Advocacy Initiative was trying to achieve and the ambitions of Benefacts. Both are about enabling the sector to respond to some of the challenges it faces; both have the potential to allow the sector to reimagine its role; and both seek to enhance understanding about the sector and its work.
The Advocacy Initiative was one of the very last beneficiaries of Inkex (Benefacts’ predecessor) before it shut down. We used it to do a sample survey of the sector about its social justice advocacy work and we learned a lot. The work would not have been possible without Inkex. That research and other work is still available on The Advocacy Initiative legacy website.
I know that many of us in the sector have some concerns about Benefacts and how it will be used. But the point I want to make today is, that in many ways, how it will be used is up to us.
The Advocacy Initiative was not universally welcomed either – understandably as there were risks in trying to have an open and honest reflection on a role that is sometimes perceived to be controversial. Despite broad public support for the sector, we nonetheless operate in what can be a hostile environment. What the Advocacy Initiative was trying to achieve was not always understood, though when it was the potential it created was incredibly exciting. I think the Initiative created many, many conversations that were genuinely transformative for the sector and those working in it.
But I also remember some of the fears – those that were realised and those that were not. The damage of one particular newspaper headline took weeks to unravel. The headline read ‘Poverty Industry targeted in report’ and it was our report!!! Not exactly the coverage we were looking for, but actually now, a few years later, I would say that that headline was probably good for the Initiative, why is another story, and I certainly would not have thought so at the time!
Thinking about the Initiatives’ experience of managing risk I would say there are three things that Benefacts could learn from:
First, our sector should not be condemned for being open and honest about limitations and trying to address them. The many thousands of entries in this database are often small, under resourced organisations, whose first priority is serving the people they were set up to help. If the people behind those organisations can hold their hands up and say “you know what – we can do a bit better” than that energy needs to be supported and rewarded.
Second, it is very difficult to judge a complex sector from the outside. It is even harder if you only rely on one small part of the picture. Benefacts does capture some important stuff, but it is perhaps a microscope that focuses on particular details, it zooms in and not out. As the filmmaker Ed Wood says “Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture” so too the impact of the sector needs to be about the big picture, but of course, it is details that make up the big picture.
Finally, it is very possible to get distracted by the wrong story. We can use Benefacts to highlight some of the real challenges facing the sector, but this is a sector that is trying to tackle some of the most complex problems our society faces. We need to keep that outcome to the fore, rather than rushing to judge on the basis of how many boxes an organisation can tick – I am reminded of the quote that when you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.
Having said all that – it is not a good idea for us to shoot the messenger. There will be challenges that Benefacts throws up for us, real challenges that we need to address. What the Advocacy Initiative taught me is that as a sector, when we put our mind to it, we can take on the trickiest issues, without losing sight of what we are about. We know how to do this.
The value of a tool like Benefacts is the potential it creates. Our challenge is not to see Benefacts as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end. Of course we should not be naïve – others will use it too, and they may not always have the sectors best interest at heart. But there is nothing new in that. I think that in the sector we can add Benefacts to our toolbox as we grow and reimagine our work in a world that continues to face devastating social and economic inequalities.