Below the self-indulgent froth of social media, a fundamental change is taking place in the way people relate to each other and to the organisations they adhere to and which seek their adherence.
Let’s go back a stage to understand the context. In Anthony Trollope’s The Warden there is no doubt of the relationship between the good Warden, Septimus Harding and his deferential and fitfully disgruntled charges.
A century later statutory provision transformed the disadvantaged from objects of pity and patronisation into rights-asserting clients, as is obvious in the relationship between Oliver and Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Later still, in a cynical aping of retailers, the public services described their recipients as customers, even though they were on the weak end of a power relationship with professionals who continued to make a tidy living from ‘farming the poor’.
Then came the arrival of the internet and the cultivation of audiences who were encouraged to visit a particular website.
But now the relationship between large organisations and their audiences is shifting from one of producer and consumer, preacher and congregation, enforcer and complier, fund raiser and donor, to one of community.
Now this has massive implications for charities that work with people with disabilities, particularly in the area of campaigning and fund raising.
First, we will have to shift from the abstract to the personal. Communities, other than communities of practice, are not apt to use jargon or deal in abstract concepts such as rights, accessibility and participation.
Communities are built on the exchange of experience and they only survive if there is a mutuality of respect and constraint: as with actual conversations that take place on a weekly basis among friends, relationships primarily survive because we know what not to say; at the same time.
Equally important, communities build corporate memory through storytelling and the worst thing we can do in a community is routinely to trump every story with our own story. My pain might be greater than your pain on an on-going basis but we have to make room for the pain of the other.
This transformation also means that we have to put ourselves on the line if we want community to include the transfer of resources between them and us.
In community, I am the cause and, having less direct impact on my community, my friends are the cause.
So we can’t hide behind some laudable idea that people, in the abstract, should support the cause of people with disability in the abstract. It won’t do to advise those who might be interested in us to visit our website.
We have to say that we are a cause that requires and justifies investment and, increasingly, support will be peer to peer rather than funders depositing into a pool for a faceless arbitrator to distribute.
Traditionalists might argue that this is winding back philanthropy to the 18th century magnate and beggar and I would warn that, as in the era of the misuse of the word ‘customer’, the word ‘investor’ might simply be a piece of contemporary jargon.
But, without wishing to be nostalgic or to hype the phenomenon, social media are providing a personalised forum to fill the gap left by urban anonymity.
There is nothing humiliating in fulfilling the need of the other to give. We have no problem with the concept of giving, it’s what fund raising is all about, but the problem in the context of social media for people with disabilities is that we can’t hive off the receiving to fund raisers.
We will have to come down off our high moral horses where it is safe to pretend that the cause induces the donation and that, although we directly benefit, it really has nothing to do with us.
We have to learn how to take as well as to encourage giving and the best way to avoid the feeling that we are recipients of charity, or pity, or patronisation, is to learn how to give back. That’s what successful community is all about.