A Conversation with aladin, Strategic Counsel to the Big Society and former Chair of the Cultural Strategy Group for London, one of the most influential figures in civil society in the UK in the past decade

Paul Skinner: aladin, for the benefit of any readers who don’t know you, you have a wide-ranging career that defies all attempts at summary – including everything from international diplomacy to performing magic illusions. You are strategic counsel to the Big Society, consult widely on civil society initiatives globally, were Chair of the Cultural Strategy Group for London for Mayor Livingstone and in charge of creating the first integrated cultural strategy for any capital city and have been a key figure in the voluntary sector in the UK for more than 15 years. You are also part of the Pimp My Cause team and have been helping us move our whole project forwards.

What would you say are the main differences between the challenges you faced as Chair of the Cultural Strategy Group for London in 2000-4 under Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London, and the challenges you face now through your work with the Big Society, and how has the agenda for civil society moved forwards in that time?

aladin: Ken Livingstone and David Cameron each share very similar commitment to and confidence in the strength, depth and resilience of our civil society to be able to propose solutions and strategies which reflect its core values and principles. Both London’s Culture Plan and The Big Society mirror their patrons’ passion about harnessing the ability of citizens themselves to be able to map and build civic processes and projects in ways which fit their needs and aspirations.

The sheer diversity, heterodoxy and heterogeneity of London’s culture, media, sport, arts, heritage and tourism demanded a cultural strategy which derived from an iterative ‘consultation’ and mapping process led by stakeholders, leading to a well resourced action plan. The resourcing can be inferred from our successful Olympic bid and our radical work in supporting and representing in our ‘brand’ the artistic and cultural diversity for which London is renowned and in setting new benchmarks for ‘sustainability’.

David Cameron’s conception of The Big Society is no less compelling than Livingstone’s heartfelt belief and trust in Londoners as a source of positive ideas and ultimately as a force for good. Each explicitly believes in empowering the communities which make up our society to be allowed to describe the world that they want and be given the ability to make or at least influence the decisions to make this real.

The difference a decade on from the start of my work at City Hall is that the Prime Minister of the day is operating under economic constraints that were frankly unimaginable at the time I was appointed by Ken Livingstone. Thus we have to be smarter than ever before to ignite and catalyse new ways of bringing assets to back the visions and priorities of our citizens – adding value to the critical projects and processes of our times.

Whereas between 2000-4 we seemed to have no limit to the number of partners willing to back the radical ideas springing out of the cultural strategy for London, 2010’s accession of David Cameron to Number 10 brought into relief a very different picture because of the impact of the recession on the status of established, conventional ways to nourish good work.

The new civic economy requires that we back (social) enterprise, ingenuity, innovation, interdisciplinarity and GENIUS in additional ways than solely cash to in turn support, seed, inculcate the empowerment and building of communities.

It’s a privilege to be able to have the opportunity to make a democratic, non-partisan contribution to help bring to reality two such profound, radical civic projects,

Pimp My Cause of course embodies a conception of a society whose constituent elements join together to add value to each other’s processes – ‘because it is right’.

Thanks for your support of Pimp My Cause. And yes, many of our causes feel for themselves the challenge of adapting to such a challenging economic environment just as the social and environmental issues they address are so acute. They also need to be relentlessly positive to succeed at such a difficult time – so despite the difficulties, what would you say are the key opportunities that charities and social enterprises can still grasp at this difficult time?

Where we can with conviction and convincement coalesce and collaborate around initiatives which have the backing of the government of the day we have a good chance of succeeding in our endeavours. There is also a backdrop of an increasing focus and pressure globally for processes to demonstrate that they inherently contribute what I call ‘civic gain’ or ‘civil yield’. Charities and social enterprises have always been at the vanguard of delivering the latter – they should grasp the historic opportunity to participate in creating a better template for society to engage with each other, to knowledge share and to help us to chart the way forward.

So charities and social ventures have a great opportunity to influence the future. That has to be a positive thing.

Turning back to you, of course there are many other aspects to your work from re-structuring developing countries' debt to an iconic, word-of-mouth, underground status as one of the world's greatest magicians. One of the most intriguing things about your career is that you are very difficult to categorize – how important do you feel it is to work across boundaries in the voluntary sector?

I have never set out to eschew boundaries or categories. Temperamentally I have always been an explorer emotionally and intellectually so I was always unconsciously travelling across other people’s, including society’s, boundaries. It helped me to have perspective on whatever I was engaging with and also instilled an instinct for seeing things for what they are as opposed to what they are supposed to be. While this can be uncomfortable it is also necessary – I had rather been on the winning side of history than stick around with those lumbered with ideology, ‘expertise’ and affiliations to one practice or another.

Innovation cannot come through being risk averse and avoiding new experiences; we have to be willing to collide with barriers and occasionally career through them; we’ll learn from our scratches and bruises at the very least. Charities should not feel they have to behave according to type; they must at all costs avoid ending up in a silo.

Absolutely. One of our key objectives at Pimp My Cause is to escape silos by bringing together causes and marketers, most of whom are not from the voluntary sector, for the benefit of both sides.

And speaking of which, we have come to the point in the conversation where we ask you to choose one or two causes from among our members to give some advice to – and in your cause I believe you have already started collaborating with your chosen causes?

Yes that’s right. I’ve chosen ASTI the Acid Survivors Trust International and Entelechy Arts. They work in quite different ways to each other but are both profoundly effective at re-establishing and sustaining the core processes of civil society. ASTI developed its work initially in Bangladesh while Entelechy has piloted an approach over decades in the Deptford area of London; the success of both projects has led to the development and application of their methodologies further afield. ASTl is based in the UK but its project work is now across continents; Entelechy is now active across London, the UK and is into its second year establishing peer relationships with Brazilian counterparts.

Something else which joins ASTI and Entelechy are that each focuses on the human rights of highly marginalised individuals and groups - the kind of people that society finds very problematic meeting its responsibilities towards, preferring that their presence and needs were kept hidden, swept under the carpet even.

I am partly of Bangladeshi ancestry and earlier this year with my hat as Emeritus Editor of one of Bangladesh's main media groups I chose to report on the work of ASTI to combat acid violence in that country. A horrific phenomenon which has required exceptional advocacy and vision to tackle; they are turning the corner quite remarkably. I am now looking to give
ASTI a boost in their overall marketing communications strategy by recruiting marketeers. PR specialists and others to support them in their profile and fundraising.

I've been supporting Entelechy Arts since about 1990 and was Chair of their board of trustees for the best part of two decades. I have focused on their strategic planning and brokered partnerships to enable them to continue developing their practice. Having relinquished formal ties to them a few years back I am now looking to bring in marketing communications assets via Pimp My Cause as they have suddenly broken through a perception glass ceiling nationally and are much in demand - but need to know how to make marketing capital out of this.

And what advice do you have for them?

They each have to persist using their instincts to develop their professional practice: they are for good reason best in class worldwide. At the same time they must avail themselves of every particle of advice and elbow grease to make the most of their exceptionally high level of credibility in their fields. So it is time for them to work hand in hand with communications specialists who are as exceptional as they are.

More specifically each needs to quite speedily derive and implement a communications strategy with the support of assets through Pimp My Cause with a view to being able to

secure further funding partnerships, cement their brand positioning and get up to speed internally on the communications front. This later relates both to methodology and staffing assets.

ASTI and Entelechy in my view would benefit from some outstanding branding narrative work which overcomes the issue to do with the fact that many of the individuals and communities they are partnering with are shunned by wider society. What is the issue at the heart of their work which can be put across in a way which creates engagement in a fresh, uplifting way and utterly wins over any and all who come across their work? My own instinct is that they need to make more of the fact that their work makes civil society thrive, become more resilient, fair and prosperous in the true meaning of the word.

That is fascinating. And of course if any marketers reading this would like to join you in advising these two great causes, they can mail me at paul@pimpmycause.org and I’ll be delighted to make the introductions.

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