Rolling with the punches

Small social sector organisations tackle constant challenges, like financial insecurity and lack of resources, and the onus is often on them to be resilient in the face of adversity. Jessica Prendergrast, Director of Onion Collective, a community interest company, says it’s time for an honest conversation about this pressure to ‘keep bouncing back’.

A host of powerful players in the social sector, including funding bodies, infrastructure organisations, and the public sector, are understandably concerned with the resilience of on-the-ground organisations. How might they best enable us to continue our valuable work in the face of adversity? How can they help us to overcome the lack of resources, the risk of burnout, the financial pressures or, more often, the weight of all these and more at once?

Etymologically, the term resilience refers to an ability to ‘bounce back’, to return to an original form, speedily and unharmed, after being compressed or bent out of shape. Thankfully, the literature takes a more nuanced view on what organisational resilience looks like. Broadly, it is conceived as the capacity of an organisation to withstand threats, respond to opportunities and adapt to changing circumstances – that is, it encompasses some sense of ‘bouncing forward’ not just ‘bouncing back’. It’s basically about how well we can roll with the punches.

Taking knocks and scaling barriers

When I was invited to contribute to this series of blogs, on the subject of resilience, my own organisation, Onion Collective, was facing yet another giant hurdle, placed in our way by a funder and seemingly out of our control. It involved us needing to unexpectedly raise £2m very quickly or else having to let go of our dreams. In the end, we climbed that hurdle, like a thousand before it, and dropped down on the other side – already with the next obstacle in our sights. But were we more resilient for having overcome the enormous challenge? Or had the climb taken it out of us? Were we apparently victorious but with our souls a little weakened?

For some months, the negative impact of having to, once again, fight did indeed undermine us, organisationally and personally. (As a small, relatively new, social enterprise, the distinction between the resilience of the individuals driving forward the mission and of the organisation as separate and distinct entity is all but meaningless). At that point, I felt unable to write about resilience. I was fearful that honesty about how hard it can be to take the knocks would be perceived as weakness. I worried that admitting we sometimes bounce back and not always forwards would undermine our reputation – and in turn ‘fundability’ – in the eyes of those more powerful parties that our survival dictates we must impress.

Now a little stronger, having ‘bounced forward’, I am more reflective that if I want to help to bring about a meaningful shift in the kind of power relations that had made me scared, I have a duty to reveal how the mechanics of those imbalances play out, for us the weaker parties. For, whatever the academic discussion, the message given to the sector that we must improve our resilience, that we must somehow get better at taking the punches, implies a strong criticism. This is despite the fact that most of the organisations receiving funds from major grant givers have proven themselves to be extraordinarily resilient. They tend to be founded and led by committed, compassionate people who would do almost anything to bring about positive change. They are also acting within a rapidly-changing political, fiscal and social context, as austerity, Brexit, and climate catastrophe all play out, and over which they have little control.

Yet, these organisations survive and adapt and juggle and persevere, climbing endless hurdles, often on the edge of financial security. In many places, where market and state failure is rife, it is the community and social sector organisations that are the only ones left standing, resiliently firm, and continuing to fight to protect and empower the most vulnerable people in our society.

Resilience, strength and removing hurdles

Given all this, is it really resilience that we need more of? Is offering ‘advice’ to organisations about how to be better at the process of hauling themselves over the countless barriers really the most supportive approach?

A divergence into personal resilience is useful on this question. Ten years ago, I ‘beat’ cancer. During treatment, I received hundreds of well-meaning messages telling me I was “strong enough to beat this”, that “if anyone could beat it, I could”. These messages were meant, quite genuinely, to buoy me up. But, instead they did the opposite, especially when the going was really tough. The blame was pushed to me, the responsibility to defeat the tumour was mine. If I failed to survive or could not successfully navigate the obstacles of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and emerge victorious, it would be my fault for being too weak – not resilient enough. Similarly here, does the thinly-veiled criticism of social sector organisations as not resilient enough imply some degree of blame on the organisations who are facing the obstacles?

Do we really want to be implying to all those extraordinary, powerful, resolute people and organisations who define our social sector, that if they cannot beat the hurdles constantly laid down in front of them, it is because they are not strong enough? Does this weaken rather than strengthen their resolve? What if the obstacles, like so many tumours, prove too big, too aggressive, too relentless? Imagine instead how much less resilience we would need if the obstacles weren’t there to be got over in the first place, or if we were all pushing them aside together? Should we not be working to remove the hurdles, not implying that people who cannot climb them speedily and unharmed are too weak?

Of course, we are buoyed by the winning, but it is the endless need to keep climbing the hurdles that saps the soul. It simply shouldn’t have to be this hard.  But the resilience agenda implies it is normal and acceptable for these countless barriers to exist – for it to be crushingly hard to build a better future. Resilience implies relentless battle, that the punches will keep on coming. This risks a dangerous reinforcement of a steady state that should not be accepted either by those on the ground, or those who seek to support them. I can roll with the punches sure, but it would be better altogether to stop getting hit.

Because of this, the very hardest bit of being resilient is not the things that organisational resilience support tends to focus on. What we need to survive and thrive is not more fundraising capacity, better succession planning, regular governance reviews, or financial literacy. It is more hope. It’s about feeding that part of the brain that makes us dream and imagine. It is that which helps you bounce forward not back.

What really keeps us going is as much about passion and purpose, as perseverance and adaptability. This is not just about resilience, it’s about grit. In grit, there is not just the endless challenge but also an aspiration towards a positive, better, future and a determination to reach it. It is the potential for transformation that gives us the courage to keep climbing. The best companies, families, communities, humans, don’t accept a negative steady state, they seek to change it – to value and reach for joy, redemption and renewal. So we don’t need your support to help overcoming the hurdles, we need you to believe, like we do, that they can be banished and help us to get rid of them.

Let’s acknowledge power and stand together

Obstacles represent power. They are tangible evidence that control lies elsewhere. Getting rid of them means building agency, cutting through existing power relations and shifting control. The brilliant Gordon Seabright, from the Eden project, is insightful on this point. Good leadership for him is not about using his (self-confessed) power to direct his staff about what to do and how best to do it, but in using his power to get obstacles that are proving too great, too invasive, too hard to climb, out of way, so that his staff can find their own path to a better future. This is the most meaningful role that could be adopted by funders seeking to build a more resilient sector. In so doing you’ll improve our resilience no end.

At Onion Collective, we do lots of peer support work, helping other organisations to overcome their own hurdles. It works because it is safe for them to tell us about their major difficulties, crises and fears – they know we will understand, have probably been through something similar, and will not judge them as weak for struggling to know how to keep climbing. Instead we will acknowledge that the hurdles we climb do leave a lasting effect – that they can be injurious to the soul of an organisation and its people. But we also honour the strength and courage they exhibit in keeping on battling.

Doing this kind of work at scale, to really create a resilient, vibrant social sector, needs a narrative and culture in which grantees do not fear they will be considered lacking in resilience if they are honest about the hurdles they face, or weak if they ask for help to overcome them. It cannot work if we are too scared to tell you we need your help, our unambiguously more powerful allies. So don’t be ashamed of your power, don’t deny the power imbalance, but let us tell you openly and honestly when we are facing huge hurdles or losing hope: stand resiliently by our sides and demand that the punches stop.

Five things funding bodies, infrastructure organisations and the public sector can do to drive change

  1. Change the narrative around resilience to a more positive one around determination and aspiration for a better future.
  2. Acknowledge and honour the fighting of the battle rather than just focusing on the wounds.
  3. Talk about hope and agency as much as resilience and sustainability.
  4. Find ways to really allow organisations on the ground to be honest about the hurdles we face.
  5. Use your power to help us get the hurdles out of way for good.

15th May 2019