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Punkawallah with a tie?

We try to make better lives for as many children as we can
We try to make better lives for as many children as we can

In colonial times Punkawallahs used to sit outside colonial houses all day pulling a cord to operate a large manual ceiling fan. More than twenty years ago, management consultants (as I was) used to refer to a mindless repetitive management style as "punkawallah management". These days there are so many organisations for charities to join and so many meetings and conferences that a similar risk presents. This time the danger is more of a charity CEO becoming a "punkawallah with a tie", going to conferences and turning the handle rather than doing their real job.

Of course, even in the comedy "It ain't half hot mum" the punkawallah had no choice. Perhaps out of respect for the exploited lowest caste Indians (and children) forced by circumstance into this role, I should not use the term at all. Perhaps I should refer to the start of "Winnie the Pooh" where Pooh bear reflects as he is dragged downstairs by a foot that he was sure he could think of a better way if only the banging would stop.

But the point is there regardless: we fill our lives with activity and that prevents us stopping and reflecting. Too many charities operate as repetitive mailing houses writing to supporters with exactly the words which "pilot" mailing showed would get the best financial response (we do not, see "no junk mail" ). The savvy donor spots the artificiality of a "personal" letter which was one of half a dozen tested. Too many charities spend too much money on junk mail or chugging and all meet up to reassure each other it is the right thing to do. Too many charities are all about "advocacy" (chatter) and not about action. Too many charities operate in a way whose effectiveness is a matter of political opinion. But we are not going to realise it on a conference together.

I once went on a silent retreat and it was surprising how removing the comfort of everyone chattering makes you reflect deeply and dig inside yourself for other forms of reassurance. So with many activities; when we stopped direct mail completely in 2004, we learnt a lot about ourselves, donors and started on a low cost growth path which we still follow.

We were looking this week at the number of member organisations SOS Children is part of. We keep trying to cut down but there are still over a dozen on the list. They all cost money, but they all stand for something we care about (Street Children, Aids, Fundraising Standards, Development Education etc). We do need opportunities to talk through approaches and issues with those other charities who try to ensure children have the chance to grow up in a family. However the charities themselves also arrange conferences and some conferences seem to be set up by people who make a business of running conferences on prominent topics. Some of the membership organisations seem to exist just to meet committees of MPs. Why? With the greatest respect, MPs do not play a central role in helping children without parents in the developing world.

We do spend some money on being in UK membership organisations (last year this cost 0.1% of our income which seems like a lot to us). But we don't spend a lot of time on conferences. I went to just one "sector" meeting last year. We probably miss out a bit on media profile from not meeting journalists but frankly we would rather get on with helping children. And help children we certainly do: there is no other NGO of anything like the same size as SOS Children which single-mindedly tries to make the lives of orphans ("Children without parental care" in conference speak) better. And almost unique amongst NGOs we help children in the field with our own (local) SOS mothers, chosen, trained and employed by our local SOS association, rather than hand money over to a "local partner" where "local partners" (and which children are helped) can be swapped over for others if anything goes wrong.

Of course, we think we are more thoughtful than average about what we do. I am sure other people think they have strengths compared to others too. But the least I can do is encourage every charity to clear enough space from time to time and reflect on whether there is not, after all, a better way.