About Me

My Photo
Colin@advantagedthinking.com / @C_Falconer. Writing to explore new ideas.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Doing charity differently

'Charity begins at home’ has long been a refrain associated with selfish detachment. Of ignoring social and international responsibilities to focus on ourselves and our personal economic wellbeing.  It’s a hackneyed expression, but one that has a hidden truth to be cherished. We have, for too long, mistaken charity as an act of giving alms, rather than its original association with acts of love.  There are many things to be said against piling up the pennies for one’s self, as an individual or a country; but the absence of love in our own home is something which makes us all less able to shape a thriving world.

As I reflect on my own career in charity, and look over a Berlin-wall of branded fences into the living rooms of other youth charity families, I am left with a horrible feeling that we have become homeless through the disassociation of our love from the causes we are meant to be working for. We develop our skills as project managers, budget holders, communication and relationship experts; we become coaches, counsellors, trainers, mentors; and we all want to be entrepreneurs, innovators, the next big thing.  We go on team building days, we explore our Myers Briggs and other personal and team profiles, we develop a culture and a way of working, we express our values. All this, while we work on programmes and campaigns to improve the lives and prospects of the young people we care for, with the promise that they themselves are the opportunity to transform the narrative of disadvantage which has challenged their lives.

What we don’t do is open up the engine to look into the deeper reality of who we are, where we have come from, and the potential that exists in and between us to recycle and transform our personal narrative into something that can create a different future.  While we might be moved to consider that as a programme to invest in for young people, we are less likely to consider that as worthwhile for ourselves. Which is where the problem exists: we are not authentic, and can never be so while we grapple with or blankly ignore our own inner narratives of being and conflict that we project out through our work onto and with others.  Until we realise that, we will forever be talking about making a breakthrough in the changing paradigm without achieving it, free-falling through space without realising the parachute cord is held between our hearts.

Charity does not do charity, because it is lost in a model of working and organising that is from a different world. Walk into an office, look around the people inside it; see beyond the computer-screen eyes to a hidden place of feeling, experiences, ancestral conflict, secrets, and the huge possibility to connect and shape all that into a new energy to thrive from.  How can we be so complacent to miss that; how can we not see the obvious connection between who we are and the challenges we are trying to address in our society?

There is a fusion to be had, within the home of charities, and between the homes of different charities, that would profoundly change the shape of the sector into a revolutionary community. Just imagine – a charity that is a home for human development; that authentically lives how to transform narrative and maximise personal potential through others in itself; that has abandoned the restrictions of replication for the abundant energy of continual innovation; that can be a philosophers stone to turn disadvantage into advantage.

Perhaps I feel this more strongly than ever in a week when the past has collided with my mind in the form of Lorna Sage, the wonderful teacher and writer who was the subject of one of my former blogs  Her name came up this week in conversation, and with it memories of something important she was trying to tell me one night in 1992 about the concept of ‘bad blood’. Lorna’s turned on its head the idea that we were left to hand down the bad blood of our ancestors - because the power of language and literature for her was something that could genuinely transform personal and social narratives into something new. In the book that idea would became in 2001, Lorna left us a well of good blood to nourish the future.  She also left us, perhaps, something of a challenge; not to neglect the personal history of who we are, and the importance of taking back control of one’s story in order to escape from it. 

That is a challenge which charity is to busy 'doing alms' to begin to see. Charity is failing in its responsibilities to begin charity at home. It urgently needs to wake up and start again, reclaiming its narrative from campaigns and contracts into something more beautiful.  Like the young people our sector is meant to represent, we are in danger of becoming a lost generation of missed potential to change and transform the story we all own part of in our self.  Let’s spill some shared blood and paint the canvas differently.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


There is a large vault with 5 discrete spaces. You are led into the vault, through darkness, hearing the sound of heartbeats, breaths, crying, laughter, the mingling of life’s sensations.

You arrive to be left alone.

Space one contains all the feelings of young people we signify as undesirable: their anger, their suffering, their cynicism, their apathy, their violence, their self-harm, their otherness.

Then you are taken away, and left alone.

Space two contains all the feelings about young people we signify as undesirable: our criticisms, our blame, our fear, our frustration, our low aspiration, our victimisation, our confusion.

Then you are taken further, and left alone.

Space three contains all the feeling that young people have we signify as positive: their dreams, their love, their community, their creativity, their generosity, their risk, their intensity, their innocence.

Then you are taken further still, and left alone.

Space four contains nothing but an invitation for your feelings to be shared, in whatever shape and form is possible among the blankness, games, interaction, skin, mind, soul.

You are led to the last space, where others are waiting for you. It is a full of what has been performed by each visitor of the fourth space. You join an audience watching as your feeling is brought in to be displayed with the others, connecting with and changing everything about it.

When the time ceases, everyone leaves through a narrow door, alone and together, recycling what has been felt back into the world. This is a factory.

Saturday, 18 October 2014


 I am receiving feeling. A numb communion. The dilapidated building with graffiti tears, the child’s empty face, a couple arguing over a black sofa on credit they can’t afford, the cracked lipstick of a tired supermarket lady, my reflection shimmering in a mirror I want to break.  The distinction between me and these pulses of pain is a misplaced sense of being. For there is nothing here but the connected hurt of this moment, channelled through a heart beating with beauty into death.  

The feeling is bigger than myself. The ghosts of experience have unlocked the windows to come in. Their ashen eyes hide from trusting anyone’s view of the pity they carry. They whisper in cuts and coughs and curses. There is no squeezed middle among them; these are the ones who walk with broken legs up squalid stairs.  The bottom of the pyramid, gesturing for attention with its slit throat.

I am fighting with feeling, because it’s not allowed to be expressed. The illicit underground of emotion barricaded into frail submission, opened like a forgotten daisy blossom into the burnt sky. I have become a feeling of all the feelings we are working for, and it suffocates my ability to be of worth. Through Smithfield’s market, the agony of a martyr’s ripped bowels kisses me goodbye.

Feeing has enchanted me. There is a room full of what it is not to be loved, of disappointment, betrayal, frost bite in summer, full of too many words to cram into a language; of the yearning to be touched, of wanting to belong as the crowd disappears over the summit, of almost runs, dreams left to be wrecked, swallowed memories of violence, introspections spidered into the web that hangs me; of knowing I am nothing but a figure in the spreadsheet, contained, zeroed into gossip.

Feeling is receiving me. Like a body burnt on the river, a tattoo mesmerising my soul.  The desperate need to speak through stammered worlds throttles my normality.  Passion’s cried-out mouth bites on cotton pillows from the hunger of  embracing shadows.

Think away, with your missions, values and ambitions. Don’t think with me. Don't feel with me.  I’m a thought of feeling that has gone. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Back to the knitting

The ‘stick to your knitting’ down fall of another hectoring politician has an important message. Far more than what Marx described as history repeating itself as tragedy and then comedy, what we face is the ‘blind spot’ of a humanity unable to recognise itself in the drama.

My thesis is this: the issues that ‘civil society’ are engaged with are all ‘canaries in the mine’ that point back to a source of poison gas within ourselves.  If we could deal with the gas in the mine, the canary wouldn’t keep suffering. And young people are our biggest canary, most reflective of the chaos by which humans fail to love, communicate with and bring out the best in each other – whether in families, organisations, or communities.

If I look back on my working life, at least a third of it has been spent trying to solve inter-relationships that have got in the way of offering effective services to people.  And if I look across the charity sector, I see organisations that are hosts to so many human dramas, within a tragi-comedy where charities are competing against or trying to work with other organisations with the same character flaws. All in the name of a charitable mission that is lost under the Game of Thrones battle for sustainable funding and ‘recognition’.

The HR, change management, partnership, governance, funding, and workforce development approaches we use to shape our civil society are all unfit for the position we are in. None of them come from a position of how to love and work with each other in a shared community of purpose.  They are rational systems, but the human emotions we are dealing with defy their logic. What we face are the paisley pyjama bottoms of fallibility.

When Newmark said stick to the knitting; when Major famously talked about back to basics; both unintentionally touched on a deeper truth: that the knitting and basics are the messy human flaws and vulnerabilities we like to blame others for – problem families, feral youth, etc – but are best personified in the everyday actions of ourselves. I wouldn’t like to imagine what pyjamas the cabinet and its shadow wear each night, let alone who paid for them. The point is that it’s irrational for us to believe that we are led by saints whose only intent is to serve. Just as it is irrational for those in power to criminalise others for being in positions of poverty.

In my experience, charities deal with the faulty ‘knitting’ of family systems, politicians, social class and gender structures, and personal conflicts between ourselves, that have ‘stuck’ various people with intolerable challenges.  We must to get back to that fact.  The laws, values and habits that define the knitting patterns of our society and ego all need urgent renewal.  If pyjama politicians, sting-obsessed journalists and funding-obsessed charity leaders are not up to that task, then it’s time for someone else to take a lead. Who wants to shape a different tribe?  I so dearly do...

Sunday, 21 September 2014

A trip to Kangan Foyer, a home for Advantaged Thinking

 At the immigration museum, in Melbourne, they talk about the symbolic power of the suitcase - something a traveller takes with them (if lucky enough to have one) in hope or fear of the journey ahead. Since my bag had got lost in transit, it seemed rather appropriate to ponder its significance. Rather like a home, the suitcase is a material comfort zone, and to be without it has its own sense of displacement. But what was more important to me – the clothes in the bag, or the memories, feelings and ideas in myself? We pack stuff in the suitcase, when the important thing is what we unpack from ourselves through our connection with others.

I have been lucky on my third trip to Melbourne to be in the company of the wonderful people from The Brotherhood of St Laurence and Hanover.  Friday, I got my first chance to visit the Kangan Foyer in Broadmeadows, about 30 minutes outside the city centre, which last time I was out here was just a concept and a set of drawings the organisations were working on together with me. It was truly magical to see its bold, vibrant colours rise up in the landscape, and then open the front door to the sign ‘welcome home’ hanging in reception. 

The Foyer is the only service that has been fully shaped through Advantaged Thinking and Open Talent concepts from the very outset, so what you see in the building design, the staffing, the programme, and the community of young people, is an expression of the philosophies in practice.

And what a sight it is: space, light, colour, welcoming faces, bundles of activity, places to do things, and all the vibrant chaos that makes a community alive and real.  With a huge kitchen area as the hub of the service, a beautiful patio with views of the hills, and a mixed group of young people from different backgrounds, you immediately feel part of a positive family setting. Only the young people here are all called students – and the point becomes very clear that this is about a collegiate environment to learn and develop in, with access to all the facilities of the local college that shares the same land area.

I was able to join in a session with the students talking about what they thought the values of the Foyer are.  I’ve always judged a Foyer from how the people living and working inside interact with you as a person, and I was gripped by the quality of the exchange in the session just as much as in the informal conversations over a barbecue. The values recognised ranged from being bold, aspirational and imaginative, to strength, consistency and honesty, to teamwork, approachability and respect, to diversity and kindness, openness and intuition. It was an amazing choice of words from an amazing group of people. Who wouldn’t want to live among them?


One of the messages I am here to share on my trip is the importance of using our values to invest real value in young people.  Adult institutions often think they are the guardian of values, but the reality is that we lose sight of what our values mean, until we become their antithesis in what we do and how we behave to each other.  Look at some of our mean spirited social policies, and the competition between organisations in the charity sector, and you see exactly what happens when we lose our grip on what defines us as humans. Maybe it’s the young people, the students of the Kangan Foyer, who can best remind us of what we have lost in the baggage of growing up.  If values mean anything, they are defined in how we create communities where we all feel at home.


For further information, see:

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Adventures of tATa-man - post show reflections


The performance is over. I’m reminded of something Fassbinder wrote: what happens when the credits finish rolling, the audience leaves, and you are left with yourself in shadows.  You realise that, while you may - hopefully - have left an imprint on others, you can only feel emptiness where the words and images had lived in your heart, slowly filling up like a dam with the next emotional current to feed on.  It’s a bit like wandering into a desert where the eye of a lake has been burnt out, feeling the horizon sun brand your lips with its memory.

There is nothing you can ever do to feed the hunger of ‘remedial child’.  I’m not brave or courageous at all; I’m just a car driven by a memory of pain that is remorseless in its desire to voice all the things it sees a connection with and wants to reclaim.

4 years ago, on my first visit to Japan, I woke up in the early morning, crying in abandonment, with the memory of my grandfather choked in my mind. I had no idea why I was crying or why I was thinking of him. On my return home, I discovered that the man I never saw in my life or previously gave any consideration to, would walk through Farringdon meat market every morning, just as I do now, and his first name was given to me as my middle name – the one I like to use with my friends. So there I was, thousands of miles away in a country he never visited, thinking of him as though the closet person in my life had died. I suddenly caught a  glimpse of the deep DNA link we have with our ancestors; a water well, frozen in space in time, while we stagger in thirst. And so, the performance was dedicated as a gift to him, just as the ideas in it were gifted to the audience in whatever way they wished to receive them, to generate an energy that might break through the ice, a ‘source’ banana to feed new action.

It’s time to finish writing the script now – or at least to say there way one – and put it away in a box on the shelf. What next, my friends ask? Social shiatsu, canary freedom and fusion, are all dear to me though perhaps beyond the remit of Foyer Federation. Of course, there are many ideas still to come, just as there will be many other people running down different tracks with fresh vision. I only know that I’m moving on, flourishing with my remedial mind…
Check out the story from the 6th August show:

Thursday, 5 June 2014

People First

After two interesting evenings spent at a YMCA London celebration at City Hall, and a Lankelly Chase hosted conversation about the concept of ‘Housing First’, I feel compelled to ponder the question of why the charity sector has not been able to translate its work with young people into a more urgent issue of social justice. Looking out over the view from City Hall, what one is faced with is one of the worst poverty gaps in the western world;  but what one sees is just more housing developments along the river.  We don’t seem to be getting the message.

At the YMCE event, Chief Executive Denise Hatton identified that YMCAs were brilliant at getting on with the ‘doing’, but not always very good when it came to talking about the significance of what they did.  It would be easy to see that as just a challenge for a communications and fundraising team, or another reason to bemoan why the media and Government are more obsessed with headlines of far less significance. There is something more fundamental at stake though: that somehow the charity sector gets easily lost in the wrong narrative of what we are meant to be doing as charity.  On the same YMCA platform, we were treated to a fascinating story about a young person who had benefited from a YMCA, who chose a telling quote from Nelson Mandela to illustrate the importance of the YMCA experience: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice’.  Reminded of the City view, I wondered for a moment if it was not the purpose of charity today, in filling the gaps in our society, to fight for the ‘act of justice’ required to overcome poverty in a more sustainable way. Is that not what we should be ‘doing’?

Which is where Housing First becomes interesting, as a ‘model’ developed from the principle that access to housing should be a fundamental human right. Housing First seeks to find a way to put that human right into practice for people experiencing homelessness, so that housing becomes the initial bedrock around which other services can be connected and support issues addressed.  At the Lankelly Chase event, I was fascinated in the language used by the experts sharing their work on Housing First. They went out of their way to explain it was not of course just about the housing. It was, as I would describe it, more of a ‘people first’ approach, in which the concepts of empowerment and choice were the fundamental touchstones brought to the surface by putting a focus on housing first into the support dynamic. However, the word I kept hearing, again and again, was that Housing First was for ‘homeless people’.  Not people experiencing homelessness, with a whole set of characteristics and issues wrapped around who they are and why they are in that context; but the dehumanising stereotype, ‘homeless people’, with the usual array of problem and negative-based language attached to it. The ‘people’ at the very heart of the empowerment and choice process, by that very language of 'homeless first', were unintentionally being imprisoned within a narrative where they can never find their rights as a ‘person first’. Which is not to diminish the importance of the Housing First model, or criticise the experts sharing its important insights; it is a signification that the rights we need to talk about are not just those associated with housing, but our very concept of what it is to be a ‘person first’.

If you have heard me speak, you might know that I like to talk about the work of Thomas Spence and Thomas Paine, both associated with the concept of ‘the rights of man’. Looking at their arguments about the rights to have somewhere to live and some way to earn a living, one can see a gap in their 19th Century thinking that we can add to today: the right to be seen as a person of value. Or what you might call the right to be seen as someone who has assets, ability, talent, positives, character – whatever society will value and invest in. If that was a human right, what would it mean for the touchstones of empowerment and choice so lacking for some people in our social system? 

In 2009, The Foyer Federation began to take what I now realise was a ‘talent first’ approach: to try - in a similar way to Housing First – to change the conversation and approach on how services work with people based on looking at their potential first instead of just their problems.  Where we have reached in that process, is realising that the answer will never be found alone in workforce development, service design, commissioning, impact evaluation, another innovative programme with funding, etc. The answer is in what all those ‘doing things’ can add up to; how they can create the ‘act of justice’ to alleviate the issue that lies at the heart of why YMCAs, Housing First, and Foyers exist. That ‘issue’, I believe, is how we think about, understand, talk about, involve, and value the people who we work with and for. 

At the Foyer Federation, we call this Advantaged Thinking, and we are launching a Movement to attract those ‘doers’ who want to develop the cause.  Where will it go? Perhaps one day, we will be able to rewrite the words of Nelson Mandela, and say: Charity is an act of justice to overcome poverty in everything we do. That’s the type of charity I want to keep ‘doing’.

Shape the future in a night of Taking Advantaged Thinking Action at The Cockpit, Marylebone, on 6th August at 7.30pm. Tickets now on sale HERE