The value of nothing

So, here’s where the idealist hippy in me comes out, as indiscreetly hidden as it has been, lights a flare and with a fierce orange glow of optimism, quickly subsides without reciprocating fuel. Values. Yep, another concept primed for buzzwords and fuzzwords chatter, often articulated as shallow genericisms on a website. ‘What’s so unique about us is: we’re exactly the same as everyone else.’ And there are two problems with this. Identity is a product of differentiation as much as it is commonality. It’s an unpopular notion, for rampant socialists and especially the solidarity over charity faction within it. What makes something unique, by definition, is its difference. Great minds don’t think alike. That’s the point. They don’t think like anyone else – that’s what makes them truly great. And as we know people are capable of responding incredibly differently to individuality. Rarely, if ever, acting with distinction. 

Let’s extend this out as it links to various other points. If everything is a priority, nothing is. Yep, it’s a classic and I feel it’s extremely relevant here. Take NGO’s strategies – they are often so broad that even the invitees of a garden party in a West London private square could, in theory, become beneficiaries. It’s the banality of what was supposed to be an aspirational vision. It’s murderous placidity. And let’s be very clear – this isn’t about finding gaps in markets nor is it about identifying USPs. It’s about maintaining a focus, a distinction, to improve quality and thus integrity. If I played 5 sports growing up instead of 1.5, I’d be perhaps OK at 5, instead of pretty good at one (and pretty terrible at the 0.5). It’s a very simplistic example, but there are principles that underpin this. And it’s about specialism, the value it provides and how it is created. This isn’t to say generalists, as individuals, don’t have a place. It’s to say that NGOs that cite immediate emergencies, prolonged emergencies, poverty, inequality and migration are showing exactly what their priority is. Everything. Nothing [one for the die hard Ridley Scott fans there]. The cynical among us could argue it’s to keep funding options available to all sources. Because nothing is ruled out. Others could argue it’s a lack of imagination or leadership. The optimists could argue that cross-cutting skills are more important than sectoral specificity. I’m yet to see any evidence of that, especially as areas classically defined as cross-cutting usually should become sectors in of themselves. 

If there is something less whelming than a vague and meaningless strategy, it’s values, and the derisory attempt to peddle them. They’re written on websites with all the gusto of an empirical general and all the confidence of a dog that just farted. ‘What we’re really about…what we’re really really about, is accountability. And impartiality. And being apolitical. And independent.’ Wait, so independent you’ve listed exactly the same distinguishing features as 88.2% other NGOs? So apolitical that you don’t accept funding from the most overtly political entity of all time, governments? Values are nothing without integrity, but that’s not excuse to add ‘integrity’ to ever list of organisational values either.

It’s not that I don’t value values. In fact I love them and, if used in certain ways, they can become strategies of their own. I think there’s something honest about values being central to what we do. Whether ultimately self-fulfilling or not, very few end up in the industry or behave in it with overtly self-serving motives. That may change over time, and abuses are prevalent of the trust that this hypothesis extrapolates to. But if they mean so much, values, why are they rarely, if ever, functioning parts of a strategy? If what gets measured, gets done, why are they not measured? If one of our values is accountability, why is it so hard to find out just how well we perform to our values?

At the Start Fund we played with this idea like a resin until it hardened to something more robust. It wasn’t sectoral specificity that was being sought. It wasn’t particular axes of sociological inequality. It was funding. And funding in a way that was different. Not entirely uncommon to anything else, but definitely in the progressive minority. So we tried to strip it all away and find the roots, however idealised or idealistic they were. What was it meant to be all about? And not in complicated sentences that say so little with so much inefficiency. We did it in a word each. Two at a stretch. And once we put a few heads together, it didn’t take long to provide form to what was once a heady yet formless cloud of ambition. 

And what came out? Well, what we were really about. Being timely. Flexible. Decentralised. Informed. Collective. And these are just single words, but from them, we built ways of catching data that could articulate how we were doing. We were specific about what we really wanted to do and we focused in on that. No matter how much our personal values would have liked other elements to be included, we kept to what the Fund was about and what our role was in the sector that we hoped to support. There were better, more focused and more specialised organisations who work on accountability. But there weren’t many funding mechanisms that were faster to make decisions. More flexible with needs to change activities. More collective in their decision-making. That made financing decisions in-country and relied on the insight garnered by 42 potential agencies (plus partners and additional available sources). And it wasn’t perfect. But it provided a framework, ultimately built on 5 words. And it was catching. 

The Network and its central team – for all its diversity of action, found a way to articulate the problems it seeks to solve, the things it does in order to do so and the outcomes it aspires for under three headings amounting to 6 words. Localisation. Collective innovation. New financing mechanisms. Broad topics, yes, but addressing three key problems with the humanitarian sector, and in many ways, it is well placed to do so. And then we built indicators around them. And whilst that’s not ground-breaking, it did mean that, relatively quickly, we have theories of change and results frameworks built around values. We built a system through which we could be accountable to them AND speak to the work. Because they’re not so different, or at least they shouldn’t be. And that’s different. It’s distinct. And it meant that values weren’t cursory glances at integrity on a webpage. They didn’t amount to staff awards or recognition cards. They were how we measured ourselves. How we presented ourselves. How we knew whether we were making progress or not. And, whilst it may be on quite an abstract and incomplete level, that’s a decent slice of accountability to me. And that is sadly often unique.

The value of nothing

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