This is a guest post by Judith Eversley, the International Affairs Officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute
I read Alex’s latest blog on Guardian Professional with interest and some sympathy. He observes that it sometimes seems that ‘the charity sector in this country only focuses on London or other major cities’.
I am the international officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). Like other organisations representing chartered professions in the UK, the RTPI is constituted as an educational charity. Most of our work is in the UK and is in support of our members: setting standards of education and professional conduct, supporting members in their working lives and making the case for planning to government. But there is a corner of the RTPI that has a window on the rest of the world, and that’s where I work. One part-timer on her own can’t do everything, but I in 20+ years in this job I’ve learned to do a lot with a little. I’ve been greatly helped by colleagues and supporters (members) who helped to write an international strategy based on advocacy, knowledge-sharing and networking. I feel sure this would translate into an initiative that other small charities could take.
So emboldened by the good sense in Alex’s article, I offer the following advice:
1) True, a UK charity may not have much opportunity to work internationally – and quite right too, in one sense. Your responsibility first and foremost is to the people who fund you and their pre-occupations are mostly local. You have to do what your charitable purpose requires: ours is advancing the art and science of spatial planning for the benefit of the public. Yet even if their day job doesn’t require it, many of our members care very much about what happens in other countries and want to know more about it. Feed into that.
2) You can still work with and learn from others. Find someone in your organisation with a background in international affairs – or maybe have it in mind when making a future appointment! Then even if you can’t make it their main pre-occupation, allow them space to make worldwide contacts to use for the good of the UK operation. It needn’t cost a fortune or involve much international gallivanting. I don’t do any travelling to speak of, though the leadership of our organisation attends a couple of key international events each year and part of my job is advising on which events are worth the Director’s or the President’s valuable time. More to the point, I have received visitors, helped organise study tours, offered advice, contacts and references to anyone who comes to us, and put everything I could on the international pages of our website. That’s primarily a service to our members but we try not to be too precious about who else benefits from it. Share what you know – others will respond and share with you.
3) There are almost certainly organisations like yours in other countries, and working with them can be rewarding. Don’t be put off by differences in the way they are organised. Those differences exist all right, but they don’t have to be an obstacle. In my experience the organisational, institutional and cultural gulf between ourselves and the French, Spanish and Italian planners was wider than the one between us and (say) Sri Lanka planners, but we manage to work together by looking for areas of correspondence in the worldwide or universal value of what we do. The greatest help in this was the umbrella organisations in the EU and Commonwealth in particular: we put most of our international effort into them. So if there is an international umbrella organisation out there in your sector, join it and play a constructive role in it – edit its newsletter, host its annual conference now and again, advertise its publications.
4) That said, key bilateral relationships are important too. For example when we felt there was a need for a worldwide advocacy body for planners, we and the US, Canadian and Australian planners worked together to found one. It still operates on only a wing and a prayer, has no staff or office and only the most basic website and newsletter, but it seems to be filling a gap after 8 years. So my final suggestion is network, network, network – it may pay off in ways you did not predict.