Democracy at Work – A True Story

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Little Fish is a social justice organisation that supports vulnerable clients with acute needs while also campaigning on equality issues nationally. Earlier this year, Little Fish made a charity of the year-type arrangement with a commercial organisation, let’s call them Loan Sharks Ltd. Little Fish’s management were pleased to announce the sponsorship of Loan Sharks and the charity hoped to benefit from the large and expanding customer base of the company.

Little Fish is a national organisation, and to improve internal communication it has an online forum where all workers can post on any topics they like from comments about draft policies to news stories to updates about the staff ping pong club. One frontline worker posted a response to the Loan Sharks announcement, pointing out that Loan Sharks were well known in some of the communities served by the charity. Loan Sharks had a reputation for trapping poor families into a cycle of growing debt. Another worker pointed out that the staff of Loan Sharks had been reported for intimidating and bullying its customers. Increasing numbers of workers from across the organisation produced a variety of proof including national news reports about the unethical practices of Loan Sharks and reports from other charities with case studies of the suffering caused by the company in poor communities. Several questioned whether this company was consistent with the values of Little Fish and the interests of the charity’s clients. Some wondered if there might be a media backlash against Little Fish. Some wondered if the charity made ethical assessments of potential corporate partners and a couple of people asked to be told what the results of the assessments were in the case of Loan Sharks Ltd.

The management of Little Fish responded. They said they had assessed the company before forming the partnership and they expected the benefit to Little Fish would override the concerns over the company’s ethics. But the discussion did not end among workers and on the staff forum.

A weekend passed and still staff brought new evidence against Loan Sharks to the online forum. It was by far the longest thread there had ever been on the forum, and included contributions from practitioners, administrators, and support workers at headquarters. Some contributors were new workers and some had been in post for years. The forum does not have an anonymous posting option, so everyone’s name and role was listed. The workers had spoken with one, principled voice. One person said that her priest had condemned Loan Sharks Ltd. from the pulpit in her church. The church was an important support base for Little Fish. Within a day, the Loan Sharks agreement was cancelled. The management also said they would be changing the vetting procedure for potential corporate partners. Little Fish staff were accustomed to advocating for and empowering their clients, but this time they had also empowered themselves.

Dilemma Goldman

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