It’s not often we talk or write publicly about ourselves at Children England. You’re more likely to hear us speaking about our brilliant members, and the children, young people and families they - and we - are dedicated to. Or you might hear us talking about the funding and commissioning of the services that children and families need; campaigning about the 'marketplaces' our members are expected to compete in; or the ways that austerity policies or the pandemic are affecting children, charities and communities. That's what we’re here for.

But like all charities there comes a time every few years when you have to stop and look at where you are, how you got here and where you’re going as an organisation. Among many other things over the last extraordinary year, that’s what we’ve been doing. Listening to members, listening to young people, and trying to remain positive and ambitious about the change we can be part of. So I’m very proud that this week we’re publishing our new strategy, setting out our mission and ambitions to 2025. I’m just as proud of how we got here too.

For the first 72 years of its existence Children England was largely funded by government. We were started, back in 1942, with a government grant to enable the collective of charities then running children’s homes to work together with government as it prepared for the peace and the new welfare state that the people of Britain were being promised. The day before I took over as CEO in 2013 we lost all our grant support from government, and with it the sense of purpose Children England had always had in being the official, funded conduit between government and the children’s charity sector. Staff and trustees had to confront the question of whether we were still needed at all, and if so, for what?

Our trustees, all of whom are elected from our membership, made brave decisions at that point. They decided to use the organisation’s reserves to support a radical transition towards being a bold, challenging policy and campaigning body that would embrace its new financial independence from government, not seeing it as a financial loss but as a liberation to be more outspoken than many of our members felt able to be. They did so without any guarantees that such a mission would prove fundable from new sources – nobody really saw infrastructure as a charitable 'good cause', and most funders and donors focussed their resources on direct practice, not policy geeks like us. But it would be better, they thought, to go out in a blaze of campaigning glory, than to drift into obscurity just to chase money.

The last time we faced imminent closure (and there have been several occasions since 2013) the same boldness of mission leapt to the fore. Nothing could be guaranteed (small charities know that feeling all too well) except that it was only worth persevering if we were fundraising for visionary work. I’m not sure there could be a bigger mission than our ChildFair State Inquiry to redesign the welfare state for the 21st century, led by the insights and imaginations of our youngest citizens. And that ambition has indeed motivated donors, members, and an array of brilliant charitable funders to help us make it happen. The Young Leaders we recruited, and have been listening intently to ever since, surpassed our original vision, and their insights are threaded through the Children England strategy we are launching this week – something between a manifesto and a children’s vision for society that we are committed to championing. Again, our wonderful trustees knew the value of this new youth-led direction as soon as they heard the Young Leaders' presentation.

We know from the last decade that we can’t offer multi-million pound programmes of training and development to our members any more - but we can convene them to listen and learn directly from each other. We can’t represent or manufacture a consensus across all of our members if it doesn’t exist, and differences in opinion exist for good reason - but we can make sure all voices are heard, and that debates are held on the understanding that however we differ, we all want the best for children. We know that neither we nor any other individual organisation can achieve ambitious change for children or for society alone - so we don’t set ourselves measurement targets or claim credit ourselves for the achievements of the many voices and efforts it takes to achieve real social change.

The best 'measurement' I ever get is how surprised people regularly are to find how small our charity is compared with their impressions from our reach and influence. That tells me more than any impact metric could about how our amazing team really punches above its weight in the sector leadership we offer.

We also know that as human beings we learn most from our mistakes, and that means being humble enough to know we still have a lot to learn. We know that the charity sector is facing challenges, not only in sustaining its services and other vital activities, but in confronting deep-rooted injustices and systemic discrimination in our working cultures. As a membership charity we need to hear criticism and be pro-active in improving like any other, and we hope to be a safe and useful forum for our members to have difficult conversations about themselves, not just passionate ones about their causes.

There’s so much to be done if we are to change the world for England’s children, it can feel daunting to say the least. Our goals would be impossible to achieve if I thought it was down to our team of just six (brilliant!) people. But increasingly we feel part of a movement of others who care just as passionately about children, voluntary action and changing society as we do, and who put it into action every day in their work, in their families, in their communities.

As we emerge from lockdown and consider the future, I truly believe there is an even broader movement in the making, to create a better society than the one that went into lockdown. I don’t like to compare directly experiences of the pandemic with the brutal horrors of World War II, in which our organisation’s roots lie. But I do think the emotional and economic recoveries that lie ahead bear comparison to the challenges our nation faced after the war, in finding peace and building a better society. Our new strategy lays out our clear intention to be a significant part of it, doing everything we can to ensure that we are led by our youngest citizens in creating that better society.

If you work in a children’s charity that is not yet a member of Children England, I believe you’ll know whether you want to join our community as soon as you’ve read Our Mission, Our Direction 2021 – 2025. I’d be delighted to hear your response to it either way. And if you’re not part of a children’s charity but have a similar impulse to create a better society for children, there is something you can do: make a donation to the ChildFair State Inquiry as its Young Leaders embark on a public campaign to make their visions a reality.