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Governments losing credibility on society’s ills

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CALGARY — According to the 2012 Manning Barometer, the vast majority of people — some 88 per cent of those surveyed — would rather see government act as a facilitator, not a direct problem solver.

Even in socially democratic Canada, the report suggests, people are moving away from the idea of government doing it "for us" toward government helping us "do it ourselves." As more governments become financially unstable, this trend is not a surprise.

The lack of confidence in government, however, is balanced by growing confidence in non-government organizations to take on a larger role. According to a global survey, more people trust NGOs to do what is right relative to business, the media, and government, in that order.

This is not to say that people want government to abdicate legitimate responsibilities. But they are more open to embracing the idea of having NGOs, social enterprises, for-profit companies, faith groups, and communities perform a bigger role than they’ve traditionally done.

One of the more recent attempts at this new role — the UK’s Big Society — has not been particularly successful. Paul Twivy, its one-time CEO, has said that the initiative was perceived as merely "a figleaf for the shrinking state and spending cuts."

Driven by a political party, the program was naturally divisive. Even the term "big" made it beyond the reach of the very individuals it was designed to empower.

Twivy has now initiated Your Square Mile, a grassroots movement that engages people in changing their local neighbourhoods using their own know-how and wisdom, rather than imposed, top-down solutions. Your Square Mile identified 16 of the highest needs neighbourhoods in the UK and is working with local leaders to help turn them around. Twivy admits that almost half of the 90 projects initiated under Your Square Mile failed immediately because of the lack of confidence of the leaders who had stepped forward; not lack of confidence in the leaders; but lack of confidence of the leaders.

I conclude from Twivy’s comments that the reins of leadership cannot be handed down. Devolution of power opens the door to charges of abdication of responsibility and makes governments politically vulnerable. Instead, the reins of leadership need to be taken. Here are three ways both donors and receivers can become more confident in leading social change:

First is to focus. Whether you’re an individual, company, foundation, think about making change on an issue on which you can lever your skills and network to make a substantial impact. Donors without focus are almost guaranteed to have no impact. See yourself as a problem solver, not just a cheque-writer. Likewise, social agencies need to avoid mission creep and focus on what they uniquely do best.

Second, develop a strong brand. Understanding your personal or organizational DNA will help you stand out from the crowd, and give you confidence to move forward boldly. One Calgary agency whose budget has doubled twice over the last five years gives branding credit for its impressive growth. "A big part of the reason [for our growth] is how we understand ourselves. We’re more confident about our strengths and the magic of what we do." This advice extends to philanthropists who are uncomfortable with self-promotion. The key is to celebrate successful outcomes, and the role of both grantees and grantors in the process.

Third, organize. The authors of Getting To Maybe point out that extraordinary leaders harness the forces around them, rather than single-handedly setting those forces in motion. There is a certain boldness to collaboration that gives it credibility and attracts support. Organization is a power lever that builds organizational confidence, provides a bigger public presence, and the potential for greater impact. One of the reasons collaboratives are bolder is that they have a bigger mission to accomplish than any partner could achieve alone.


Joni Avram ( helps donors, businesses, and non-profit enterprises gain credibility, build influence, and grow support through effective marketing and engagement strategies. Her expertise has helped generate millions for philanthropic initiatives, focused on effective collaboration, blended value, and social outcomes. She will be writing regularly on philanthropic issues.


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