Winding up Ragged SCIO as a Charity: Miles and Miles to go Before I Sleep…
On Friday 29th November 2019 I got consent from the three trustees of Ragged Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (Scottish Charity 048364) to wind it up and close the books. With unanimous agreement the request to dissolve Ragged as a charity was put to OSCR and is awaiting legal processing. This post is a document of the communication(s) I made and some of the conversations I have had over the year about Ragged University and what place it might or might not have in the Third Sector as it stands.
In Edinburgh there have been no events this year as making an informed decision around the casting of the Ragged University as a registered charity has had to take presidence over the social practice. Thinking about where we are going is essential to be done sooner rather than later on before problems are brought about.
This has been one of the hardest – and in some senses the longest – discussion which has hung over the Ragged University project, as from relatively early on the proposition of formalising as a charity has been promoted as a milestone and means for underpinning a social practice.
This decision in the current cultural paradigm appears to many as counterintuitive as the Third Sector, charitable status and funding seeking is widely promoted as the means of empowering communities, social practices and initiatives. I hope that this article will offer individuals interested in the development of Ragged University some level of insight into why the choice has been made as it has been.
Firstly, an important job needs done in acknowledging and valuing the work of George Fyvie who did all the work of engaging with the onerous bureaucracies to obtain the status of registered charity. Not only this but he also used his considerable talents and skills to identify multiple routes of funding with the idea of resourcing social educational activities.
George Fyvie, as one of the trustees and treasurer of Ragged SCIO, has long been a supporter of a multitude of social organisations, communities and activities in Edinburgh. I first met him as a hospitalier and publican who managed several venues, and who, when I approached him understood the idea of Ragged University and offered practical support from the beginning by giving space – without rent or expectation – for an open learning community to do its thing.
The Blind Poet pub, which is sadly no longer in existence, was a very special place because of the staff and management at that time. Beyond technical and organisational skills, George has something which the world needs in abundance – a sense of hospitality and a living philosophy of making people welcome. So much of business is formulated as a series of strategies for extracting profit from a customer base, but this is a shallow view of economy which is hollowing out the world we live in, for which Mr Fyvie offers something of a salve whilst remaining grounded in entrepreneurial ways.
He understood that each business is a part of a wider, richer landscape; a landscape which is a habitat and setting where people live their lives; people in all their richness and diversity, individuals detailed by their peccadillos and eccentricities. I saw in him the taking of the broad and long view, one which inspires loyalty and respect such that a public house becomes something more than a place to drink, but an extension of the home and the community. Professor Ray Oldenburg describes such spaces created by individuals like George as ‘Great Good Places’ or ‘Third Places’.
As an individual you will find George in Edinburgh with lots of skilled people gathered round him precisely because he cares in practical ways and is good at what he does; highly knowledgable and capable staff will follow him as he moves projects as he has their respect. He adds value, public value, whilst managing and balancing good returns for businesses. Hospitality in this sense cannot be taught, it can only come from the heart with the mind as a skilled helper.
On each of his emails you can read at the bottom “To receive guests is to take charge of their happiness during the entire time they are under your roof” which speaks to me of the lifeblood of community and of the symbolism behind the Ragged University oak leaf crafted into the logo; the inspiration was the myth of Baucis and Philemon suggested by Jes Haley and expresses the ancient Greek concept of Xenia – hospitality.
Over many years he has been one of the people who has ensured that there was space for Ragged University events to take place and run smoothly; after many years he did a noble thing and without expectation completed the bureaucracy which had evaded the attempts of completion – that of charitable status.
In going through all this to set up Ragged as a charity to then immediately close the charity before raising any money a lot of questions had to be responded to. It has not been a waste of time but instead it has formed a historical document like the charter of good will at the historical foundation of all universities.
Historically, since the eleventh century C.E. the university was formulated as a guild of students who had come together from far off places around a charter of ‘fraternal charity, mutual association and amity, the consolation of the sick and support of the needy, the conducts of funerals and the extirpation of rancour and quarrels, the attendance and escort of our Doctorandi to and from the place of examination, and the spiritual advantage of members’…
The educators were individuals and citizens who were sharing what they had invested their lives in and who had come to be valued on the basis of their knowledge and understanding in practice. Hastings Rashdall suggests that “To appreciate the fact that the University was in its origin nothing more than a Guild of foreign students is the key to the real origin and nature of the institution” (Rashdall, 1895).
A guide for the project has been to search out ways of embodying the qualities and functions of universities in personal practice, and what George helped to affirm is a historical document of this idea around the myth of hospitality. I am endebted to him especially for the hours and effort put in, and I am endebted to Joseph Cranwell and Susan Brown who acted as trustees and scrutinizers, moral and intellectual compasses, and challengers to my thinking, as I have tried to search out the true future of what the Ragged University is.
The following is the text of the email which was sent to ask for consent to wind up Ragged as a charity:
As you will have worked out from the last year, I cannot envisage seeing working in the Third Sector environment as the way it is managed is antithetical to working in ways that it does not do already. It is a competitive and professionalised sector which is highly specialised and brings about fragility. None of this do I say lightly nor without having investigated at depth in conversations with yourselves, third sector organisations, with senior civil servants and experienced educators.
I highly recommend Lemn Sissay’s Social Enterprise which pick up on some issues:
To function in such a managerial environment has an institutionalising effect and one which makes the nature of projects fragile beyond the fundraising professional. Psychologically I dont function well with the bureaucracies which are prerequisit for getting resources and I, as an individual, would only become dependent on a different set of paperwork which means that everything must be mediated through the agency of decision makers distant from the realities of the social focuses which Ragged Uni has been designed around.
In short, for people and grassroots activities like myself, the way the sector is managed recreates many of the issues which act as constraints. Not all is well in paradise…
Of course, the work which you George have done, through the getting of charitable status, is not wasted. What the charitable registration means is the historical creation of a charter like that of all universities since the 11th century. Like basing the ethics of Ragged on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it links a social tradition with a set of values that went on to structure the institutions which came from it – i.e. international law. I am writing this up as a major contribution, but even more so, the philosophy of hospitality which George has always embodied in his day to day life.
The key aim of doing Ragged Uni was to create educational processes which anyone could share in, and within that setting, I was able to find the learning community which I needed to develop as an individual. It was about people, on the basis of friendliness, coming together to create the means they need to develop the interests and skills they need.
One of the most important lessons I have learned in doing all of this is not to professionalise personal relationships; this is one of the key pathologies we face in the world just now. This challenge can be met with the managerial apparatus of the third sector no more than a chat bot can meet the challenge of social loneliness and isolation.
If we are to look at the aim of charity it is to create public value. When I survey all the years of doing Ragged Uni and all the living in and through Third Sector organisations, the greatest public value which can be created in this situation is to say what many Third Sector organisations want to say but cannot, and give voice to those who are not served by the Third Sector (and Public Sector) as it stands. There are very few genuine opportunities to do this, however there is no apparatus to serve this function in the system itself.
I can give a full account of my decision in the academic fashion drawing on what has been learned from lessons hard won in the field of International Development. As well as this I can offer lots of work by systems analysts and economists which demonstrate the issue with how the sector (and more widely) is run. I can also show how the legal instrument of the charitable status as it stands will have the effect of limiting how Ragged University can function through the proceduralism and sunk costs of bureaucratisation.
I am writing this up anyway and shall be continuing the work in the spirit with which it was started. At the moment I am divesting myself from sitting on all committees and working with institutions; personally I have found it crippling mediating all my actions through the agency of other people who are already time starved or who have different focuses. I must deinstitutionalise my life if I am to not be driven mad by institutional practices (like so many frontline workers in all public sectors).
You were all asked to be trustees because of the ethical stances and values you have held. I appreciate all of your support and really ask you to understand the value that can be achieved from working outside the system in promoting a practical philosophy that individuals can do wherever they are. I cannot move on without first closing one door or another, so with regards to all I have said, I move to wind up the charity (hopefully with unanimous consent) or tender my stepping down as a trustee and divesting the concept of Ragged University from the Ragged SCIO.
Should you all consent, the advice I have received states that it is a simple straight forward process. Any financial assets (I think that there may be £10 put in the bank account George ?) I suggest are given to a local charity in Leith because of the vibrant community there (my favorite is Edinburgh Cyrenians).
I would like to have this finished for the end of the year so I can move on, so please let me know your thoughts. I will be giving a full public account of my decision and in the writing of that I would like you all to let me know the points of interest which you want me to cover and honor. I want to make sure that the efforts and pains of everyone are acknowledged and put on record.
For me, I argue that, once done, I will be able to return to doing Ragged Uni without the pressures, constraints and worries as well as move on in my personal life.
Responding to Advice
In coming to this decision I have had many conversation with many different people who occupy various roles in the third sector, civil service and education – as well as a multitude of people outside of these contexts. All the critical here is meant in the spirit of Kintsugi. Here is some of the thoughts which were shared by someone who is quite savvy and experienced in working in these junctures…
“Yes, the charity sector is dominated by three main groups – 1) those delivering government contracts (in e.g. the care sector), 2) those dependent on grants from either the public sector or grant-making charity trusts and 3) those who fund their operations through fundraising – whether that be small donations from the public or bigger donations from corporate donors.
As 1 and 3 are out, that would only leave 2 for Ragged and that isn’t a sustainable course. Many charities start up with grants and then spend a few years chasing every other grant there is while trying to become sustainable via 1 or 3 and, if they don’t, they fold. A 4th course of action is having a social enterprise wing that carries out some form of commercial activity and uses the profits to fund the charitable activity.”
Insight, good counsel and advice is always useful. Taking the time to seek out thoughts from those with a great deal of experience is worth while as a great number of really good initiatives are destroyed by being transplanted into hostile environments which are overcompetitive and under resourced. Here are some of the thoughts I returned in that conversation:
“Thanks for your thoughts. As I understand it the third sector is eating itself and the professionalisation involved recreates the credentialism which it is in part tasked to ameliorate. It makes no sense for someone like me to try to compete in such an environment; ironically it will just make what I do fragile.
Formalising as a social enterprise I see as problematic as well, providing disadvantages through sunk costs. Im not convinced that the ethical premium is worth it rather like a number of wine producers from the Loire valley dont label their produce as organic despite producing it with compatible techniques. Im better just doing stuff as a common garden individual involved in a social process and trying to make an honest living.”
Poor George has flexed and bended, searched and tried to find appropriate ways to draw upon the infrastructures that exist to empower what is happening in Ragged University. He suggested that he could find trustees to do the back of house stuff with the idea of leaving me to do the social practice on the ground without the back of house constraints… He identified a long list of possible funding routes amongst which were pots of funding such as the Big Lottery Fund…
‘Yes, I hear what you are saying but from experience the whole of the funding and official bureaucracy as ultimately damaging to the community which I live as a part of. Over 50% of people in prisons are dyslexic and live unrepresented by the system of governance in place; as well as this the way that funds are allocated and administrated cause lots of problems on the ground by creating competition over diminishing pieces of cake.
Having worked with many charities, universities and organisations over the years I cannot help but identify with the damage which the way that things are managed is doing. It is a bummer because whilst the sector is populated with good folks with the best intentions, the system which they work in and under mitigates all their efforts.
G——— for example is a great guy who does a lot. He has a long history of working in public and voluntary sector. My experience of seeing the pressures which he works under is that his health and wellbeing suffer because of all the fires he is fighting as his activities increasingly get dictated by the targets and administration and culture which has built up around it. It is worth having an informal chat and coffee with him about his experience – even though he is top of his game, he is constantly pushed off course with the tow of the way the sector is configured.
There are lots of examples like this, including Apex International who have delivered community service over the years yet each year get put back into the gauntlet for the next short piece of funding. I have been studying and documenting the effects of administerial practice on shared and community activities over time and been a part of what statisticians call extreme outgroups, which dont stand a chance in the system as it is put together.
Demming is a well known figure who highlights some of the various problems we find in the sector:
These are some of the reasons why I think that Ragged Uni can go further as a philosophy than a legal organisation. That said, if you can bring about reform in the sector by your magical practical abilities, you will be doing a service at a very high level.
On the front of the National Lottery, as I said before, I have mixed feelings about it as I have lived most of my life now in communities which are wrecked by gambling organisations which are predatory. The national lottery is one unfortunately as it takes massive profits and distributes peanuts in comparison to its private profits. Im not against gambling as entertainment for those who keep it in its place, but it seems like for a life time I have seen people with their last five quid getting five scratch cards or lottery tickets because they have no other options. This plays on my overactive mind…
The National Lottery made £7.2 billion in sales during 2018/19 paying out a total of £1560 million in prizes
The total revenue of Camelot Group Plc who run the National Lottery have an annual revenue of £4,911,400,000
I get to say many of the things which others cannot afford to say because we definitely need funding being driven to communities, however the profiting off of the poor is at an epidemic level. Companies like Camelot are also dodging tax when they can which undermines public services and pulls money straight out of the communities which end up having to bid to get smaller piecemeal grants to respond to social crises initiated and/or aggravated by the disappearance of money into tax havens:
The shift of how social services and communities are provisioned into competitive and individualistic ways is very damaging. Companies and property owners look towards ‘charity’ as a financial instrument to avoid costs; this sets up an instrumental relationship with communities and civic activity which ultimately brings about perverse incentives and a series of unintended consequences.
This creates the conditions for narcissistic organisational structures (externalising responsibility; internalising gains) which replaces collegiality with oppositional contestation. I heard an annecdote from one third sector organisation CEO saying that they had received a visit from someone from another third sector organisation to say “stay off our turf” as they were bidding for pots of funding.
Professor of Finance Vikas Mehrotra explains such unintended consequences of perverse incentives through the anecdote of ‘Cobra Effect’ in the following episode of the Freakonomics podcast:
The ‘Cobra Effect’ got it’s name after an iniative set up by a British governor when the British Raj was in Delhi. He thought there was too many venomous cobras and so offered a bounty for people who brought in cobra skins. As a result some of the people of Delhi created cobra farms to take advantage of the rewards by bringing in cobra skins.
The administration started to get an overwhelming number of claims and eventually stopped the scheme. At this point the cobra farmers had all the snakes they had bred on their hands. As there was no more market for them they released the snakes into the wild; the result was an increase in number of cobras by a number of orders of magnitude. This is what perverse incentives bring about.
The introduction of competition, payment by results and measurements of outcomes to the charitable sector has produced various unintended consequences. The reductive political economy of competition has resulted in the instrumentalisation of people and social functions where the measurements of outcomes has imposed itself on a prior existing complex human ecology.
The perverse incentives introduced through the methods of social planning have caused instrumentalisation of charitable behaviour and the charitable sector leading it to become used as a means of meeting economic imperatives as an extension of employability. The imposition of metrics, outcomes assessments and measurements throw up a number of problems which are well articulated by Cambell’s Law, so named after the social scientist Donald Campbell…
“Supported by qualitative sociological studies of how public statistics get created, I come to the following pessimistic laws: The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
‘Mad Max beyond the Funding Dome’…
The crude and mechanical ways which sectors are being managed are damaging the motivations of people and creating the conditions where pro-social behaviours are transformed to narcissitic and self serving behaviours.
The kind of popularity contests which are being set up in the name of participatory budgeting programmes in communities are causing a huge amount of unmeasured and unacknowledged collateral damage. For example, the Leith Chooses competition used to allot funding to community organisations in Edinburgh has a host of unintended side effects….
Whilst the community, the groups, the people involved are by-and-large nice people, the intrinsic motivations of people become erroded and give way to extrinsic motivations. The resourcing of civic activity is metted out through a series of rewards (awards) which ultimately act also as mechanisms of control and punishment. People and groups without any resources who rely on their time, energy and enthusiasm are nudged into redirecting their means into petitioning the local population for a popularity contest.
This has a profoundly demotivating effect on a great number of people who are already working at the edge of their means and/or avoid competitive environments. Alfie Kohn examines these kind of dynamics in his book ‘Punished by Rewards‘:
A Personal Relationship With Learning
In dialogue with educators and friends I was trying to explain how Ragged University is not about delivering a ‘project’ unto other people, it is a process of human development which I am living and need myself. I dont want to be an events manager, a director of a charity, a fund raiser, a gatekeeper, an administrator, a promoter, a metrics producer for outcomes reports; I want to be involved in a living learning process which is based in relationships with people who are intrinsically motivated not rise to my position of incompetence.
The charity commission is a victorian institution and the legal representation is a thin straw man which bears little resemblance to the human development processes and diverse peoples I have come to love. Much bureaucracy is making a monkey out of us all keeping us busy doing the things which keep us from creating a world which is more representative. It is all ritual which belongs to a world which I dont.
What I wrote in Education as Human Development were observations about the world and an attempt to rationalise my life experience through the study of the issues which I face. Ragged University was not taken up as a mission to rescue other people but indeed to provide some educational process of development sufficient enough for me not to wither away in the current cultural context.
It is about a personal covenant with learning which can exist within my own means, and within the means of any individual who wants to; without gatekeepers, without bureaucracies which anchor the social practice to vertical structures or arcane proceedure, without need for coveted resources.
Education as Human Development is not a manifesto but a product of an analysis which I have been doing to try and understand the world in which I am in (rather than the world I think I ought to be in) – it is a sense making process. Education as Human development was primarily written for me as a result of learning from and through the community. As an artifact it is a means of attempting to apprehend the world in a more true fashion, but also it is a means for me to have dialogue with people in society.
This is what Ragged University is about and as such the notion of transplanting or transforming it into the mechanistic environments and means of the charitable-industrial complex is anathema to what it is, has been and can be. The idea is one which belongs to wild shared traditions of open education and is rooted in a practical philosophy that can function beyond the enclosures of finance and centralised administration to support human development processes wherever an individual is situated.
To reiterate, one of the most important lessons I have learned in doing all of this is not to professionalise personal relationships. Looking out to the horizon I think about all the promises I have to keep…
Yours Aye, Alex Dunedin