What do we value?

On the day we have officially come out of recession, and new research on our social attitudes has been published, I would recommend taking a look at the McKinsey interview with the extremely lucid Jim Wallis (you can watch, listen to or read it here on the McKinsey Quarterly website, though you will have to create a free account to do so).  In the light of the current discussions taking place at Davos, he suggests that the question we should be asking about the economic crisis is not ‘when will it end’ but ‘how will it change our values’. 

Wallis believes that what we’re witnessing is not an economic issue but a ‘spiritual [what I would call psychological or social] problem’ that has led to an economic collapse: ‘we’re buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have’.  He sees this as perfectly constituted in the gap between executive and average worker pay, in terms of where we place societal value (there is a great graph of this in the New York Times and the New Economics Foundation have recently been conducting some really interesting work in this area). 

How our societal values might be changed by the recession is something that has been very much on my mind as we enter the final part of the Future of Membership project.  I have spent the last month researching and hypothesising four possible scenarios for the UK in 2020 so that we can better understand the world in which membership will operate.  They all have societies with radically different attitudes to money, values and identity.  These scenarios have been built as part of a long process for us in the Foresight Team and the Future of Membership project consortium.  Yesterday we met here at Regent’s Wharf to test how different membership strategies and organisations fared in different environments.  

Each potential future demanded different sets of strategic priorities, but in a way what was more interesting to me was understanding which futures were deemed preferable by the consortium.  Scenario planning and the kind of work we’re doing in the Future of Membership project helps us be more prepared for the future so that we can be more resilient and understand when and how, as individuals, organisations or as a sector, we need to change.  But more importantly, it helps us think about which futures we want – what values we would like to see as dominant – and consider how to move towards them.

For Wallis, as organisations and individuals, it’s what we do rather than what we say that matters: budgets and calendars are both 'moral documents' that speak volumes about our real values and priorities.  And nowhere should this be more true than in the third sector. (If you are interested in this area, do also take a look at Veronique Jochum and Belinda Pratten's NCVO Values into Action report published late last year.)  It is in this sense that our actions as part of civil society can be important and influential. 

Wallis characterises the three sectors (business, the state and civil society) as like a three-legged stool: when one leg becomes too dominant, the whole thing topples over.  When as a sector we put our values into the way we work and operate (for example, through internal policies that reflect our externally stated values – such as democratic structures for empowering members), we are not only more legitimate, but also stronger.  Since a stronger civil society tips the balance of power back a little, I would argue we are also more likely to help society move towards the kind of future we want to see.

Last updated at 13:33 Tue 26/Jan/10.
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Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Katherine, this is a really interesting piece. You mention NEF's 'value of work' focus, but for me Wallis' viewpoint really resonates with NEF's triple crunch work. In this they evaluate what they call the triple crunch of interlinked credit, energy and climate crises. I like the concept of their work: that with our current systems having been found wanting (in quite spectacular fashion), what are the alternatives for what they see as the tripartite base of credit, energy and climate? Andrew Simms, NEF's Policy Director and head of NEF's climate change programme was on the Today programme earlier this week, talking about (among other things) the role wellbeing can play in this re-envisaging. And that is something I reckon we'll be talking about at the Foresight seminar on wellbeing at NCVO's annual conference!

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