Working with the third sector is a refreshing and rewarding change – big time

November 2011

If the world of consultancy has taught me one thing, it’s that you never know quite what’s around the next corner. I do have a number of long-term clients, so in that respect I do know pretty much what’s coming up with them, but for new clients – and in particular when it’s a one-off project – the world is full of surprises, good and bad.

In the last four months or so those surprises have come in the form of a one-off project and longer contract, both of which were in the third sector. What’s the third sector? Well I found a number of definitions on the web, but this one seemed to sum it up well: ‘Organisations which are value-driven and which principally reinvest their financial surpluses to further social, environmental or cultural objectives. It includes voluntary and community organisations, charities, social enterprises, cooperatives and housing associations.’

The contract has been for a housing association and, when I was first approached about the work, I don’t mind admitting that it seemed about as appealing as painting a very large concrete wall with grey paint. How wrong I was: this housing association was looking to invest in a range of ventures from a property maintenance service for homeowners, to a microbrewery. But actually what’s made the work so rewarding to do has been less about the specific nature of the projects, and a lot more to do with the ambition, drive and smartness of the association’s leadership, combined with a healthy, warm and non-political working culture.

The one-off project was for a social firm working with people with mental health issues. Perhaps not an obvious organisation with a need for a brand and marketing strategy, but actually there was in order for its commercial operation to develop. Like the housing association, I met with strong leadership, a healthy working culture, a keen willingness to learn, and intelligent people to work with.

In both cases, I’ve also had the satisfaction of knowing that the work I do has a value beyond just making someone or shareholders wealthier – obviously that’s the thrust of much of what I do. Which is fine of course and indeed the way of the world, but actually, and at the stage I’m at in my career, sometimes doesn’t tick all the motivational boxes. Perhaps there’s a bit of a philanthropist in all of us.

Actually though, what I’d really like to be able to do is transfer much of the working culture and practices I’ve encountered from these two organisations to some of my clients in the private sector. If I could, it would mean I could add more value to their businesses because ears would be open wider, the minds, of some, the words went into would be smarter, and a lack of internal politics would ensure the words were acted upon. Of course that won’t happen anytime soon, but it is a nice thought and one I’ll dwell upon as I pursue my next third sector client.

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