Freedom on the Tyne – an evening of history, drama and celebration

A beautiful cold evening in Newcastle and Gateshead on Sunday got me thinking about the inter play between the history of a place, its stories and its sense of self. Freedom on the Tyne – a vast and awe inspiring theatrical celebration of Martin Luther Kings brilliant speech as he received his honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle fifty years ago – culminated in a celebration on the Tyne Bridge eerily reminding everyone of the infinitely more terrifying march at Selma. But it wasn’t the extraordinarily skills acrobatic dancers, the stilt walkers or the moving speeches that hit me most. It wasn’t even the experience of seeing a busy urban route free of traffic.  It was the huge joint commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, the Jarrow Marchers, the siege at Amritsar, the Sharpeville Massacre as well as the decision to cross at Selma, which together fired a celebration of protest and resistance, of global connections, and of pride in a place that could put all this on. Our public square can be a desiccated place – here were people apparently from communities across Tyneside, reimagining history, remembering music, celebrating historic oratory, poetry and dance, and doing so in a way that made those apparently distinct unconnected struggles feel incredibly relevant today. Historic connections across time and space really matter – and they speak to all sorts of people.

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power


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Could the algorithm kill our capacity for kindness?

We all want services to be kind. Nobody seriously disputes it. All social change starts with the  very personal relationship between two people, and yet, as I’ve commented before, we struggle to be kind, citing professional codes, financial challenges and regulatory restrictions to explain our rather cool, and sometimes frankly impersonal,  approach to the decisions that public policy makes. Relational seems to be OK in theory, but much more problematic when it encourages  us to break the rules. Rules help and protect the professional, reducing the discriminatory impact of discretion. They allow us to sensibly ration spending, make clear and transparent decisions – and create a framework that seems to be fair.

And we want our services to  be fair. We don’t want our outcomes dependent on whether the nurse likes us or not. We don’t want some children encouraged more than others because the teacher enjoys their company.

We also want our services to be transparent. We want to know that the choice of drug regime for  a particular condition  is not governed by hunch, but by sound medical rationale, linked to outcomes. We want university places to be awarded in ways that can be understood. We want to be cared for by people who we can trust not to have favourites.  We fear the discretionary and the partial.

We’re getting better and better at demonstrating fairness, and encouraging transparency. The algorithm provides a  powerful support. We’re all familiar  with the amazon algorithm – you bought this so you’d like that – and we don’t need to be terribly insightful to recognise that our daily scrolling and browsing and tweeting provides an enormous body of data that allows companies large and small to target their wares very precisely at our credit cards.  The predictive power of data analytics, and their capacity to shape services can be seen in every clinical pathway, every assessment form, every checklist – and they daily grow in power. Protocols and pathways ensure that intervention most likely to result in the right outcomes are always chosen, and that time – and money – is not wasted on experimentation and following hunches. It’s clean, its straightforward, it passes the test of legislation, and social media challenge, but is it kind?

Kindness requires intuition. It requires a personal relationship. It require both  warmth and risk. It probably involves personal liking, and empathy, and it may not always be fair. A doctor treating patients with warmth and humanity may not follow the prescribed pathway. A teacher may see a spark that would never register on any scorecard. Someone else might see the sadness behind the eyes. A care worker might understand the  grief and loss that is the source of  so much anger and frustration. They might all recognise the boredom and tedium, the fury, the fear – the raw emotions that drive us to need public services, and  sometimes to  loathe them too.

No algorithm in the world can replace human understanding. It can produce fairness. It can resist challenge. It can tolerate the bright light of public transparency. And it can protect  the professional from accusations of partiality. It can make sure that both money and services are carefully rationed (and in any system, at any time, that will always be needed.)

But if it can’t also allow for the warmth of human interaction,  we may need to recognise that sometimes kindness and human relationships trump mechanical approaches to fairness, and to transparency. It might not be the algorithm alone that challenges kindness. Our approach to fairness and to transparency might also be questioned.



Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The future of civil society

It has become increasingly commonplace to say that the world around us is changing and changing fast. The impact of the digital revolution, the rise of new populist forms of politics, globalisation, gender fluidity, demographic change – and everywhere there is a crisis of trust.
Devolution in the nations of the UK, changing powers and behaviours for the cities, new forms of governance, the impact of funding reductions are all transforming the role of the state. And the market too is changing too with the emergence of the platform economy. New ‘industrial’ giants like Air BnB, Task Rabbit and Uber, are making old notions of market power obsolete while the titan collectors of information and data, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now control assets that are more valuable than oil and diamonds were in earlier centuries. These market makers and disruptors have been joined by the B Corps, the activist investors, and the companies now loudly claiming the importance of their social value.
Wherever you look there is change, and civil society needs to respond and respond without veering between wild panic or a retreat to the eternal verities of the past.

But we should remember this.

Every social and economic change has seen a response from civil society that both changed our sector, and influenced the future. The Industrial Revolution turned upside down the lives of people who had previously eked out a life in the countryside. They flocked to the towns and burgeoning cities, encountering hardship, a new kind of squalor and a hazardous liberation from the rules and norms that had previously governed their lives. But the moral panic that ensued brought us some of our greatest voluntary institutions: the working men’s clubs, trades unions, the university settlements, rescue missions for children and hundreds of charities. They were the products of an active, engaged, and entirely voluntary response to the challenges of the times.

Later, in the interlude between the great wars, NCVO was born, as an association of civil society, along with institutions supporting injured returning service men.

Then, in the aftermath of that massive global catastrophe, the second world war, new forms of associational life and service provision were devised to support the displaced peoples of Europe, and the dispossessed of the UK.

Civil society observed change, organised to respond to that change and in doing so, altered the trajectory of our culture and social order. Successive waves of organisational forms, the women’s aid refuges of the 70s, the organisations for people with AIDS in the 1980s, rights groups for gay men and lesbians, ethnic minority bodies in London, Liverpool, Leicester and so many other cities, demonstrate the capacity of our sector to shift in response to huge change and also shape it. So too did the housing co-operatives, the Claimants Union, the organisations of parents of children with learning difficulties, campaigning for change.

Now the boundaries around our sector are shifting, even blurring. We witness the internet and the digital revolution altering not just how we do things but what we do. We can see that some of our global institutions are in peril. The most recent Edelman Index suggests a weakening of public trust and confidence in NGOs. This is the right time to revisit our ways of operating and examine whether our values match up to the imperatives we face. This is not a time to withdraw into nostalgia about the past, nor to simply do what we’ve always done, and get what we have always got. It is the time to examine our powers of connection and our capacity for association. To examine our accountabilities, and our relationship with others, and forge a new future, just as surely as our predecessors did before. We need to ask some fundamental questions about who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.

That’s why a group of grant-making foundations have created an Independent Inquiry into the future of civil society. We’re approaching this important task in a spirit of considerable humility, recognising that some of the answers to our questions will be found in the most surprising places, and that what we find may challenge our preconceptions. But I also approach it with considerable confidence that today’s civil society will develop and change to make a positive difference on our fast-changing world.

Julia Unwin
February 27.

What is the role of philanthropy in reducing poverty in the UK?

You would expect me to start this lecture by quoting Joseph Rowntree. You wouldn’t be surprised if I mentioned that the founding memorandum of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commits us to looking at the ‘root causes of social evil’, not its manifestations. Not to fund the soup kitchen in York, but to find out why people were queuing for soup. You would also expect me to talk about the triple legacy bequeathed to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation,

  • the practical legacy of providing housing and care in neighbourhoods, building on the pioneering work that created the model community of New Earswick
  • the legacy of inquiry and investigation, started by those early social researchers, Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree
  • the legacy of social change, requiring the organisations he founded to ‘change the face of England’.

In other words, we have a historic mission to go where it is uncomfortable, to look at root causes, and to identify what can be done in practice, not just in theory.

That’s a legacy that makes us both practical and bold.

But what you wouldn’t expect me to do is to construct this lecture around the words of a Rabbi who predated Joseph Rowntree by nearly 2000 years, Rabbi bar Hillel, who said:

If not now, when?

There are crunch points in our history. Moments which historians might later call critical junctures. Moments which we ignore as we get on with our busy lives, but moments which our successors will look back on and say, history did indeed change then. Over the last 10 years our labour market has changed, and changed fundamentally. Our housing market has changed and the role of the state in supporting people and places in poverty has changed too.

And then there are times like this where everything really does change. And change fundamentally. Moments where to ignore the change is neither possible nor right.

June 23rd has changed everything

A decision of momentous, long term importance has happened, and changed everything. A decision, what is more, that was made by many of the people who feel most dispossessed, and who live in some of the overlooked places in Britain. A decision that has laid bare some real and damaging fractures in our society, and which now seems likely to preoccupy all of us for the next decade and longer. A decision which, more than anything else I can recall, has changed us forever. And what is more a decision that seems likely to exact a very high price indeed from the poorest people and places. A decision that seems destined, whatever the longer term consequences, to herald a period of political and financial volatility.

Future generations will judge us on our response to those moments. For those of us who encourage, support, manage and enable philanthropy, we have a particular and urgent interest in understanding those junctures and responding to just such a critical point, a moment where change happens and intervention matters. I’m going to argue tonight that for philanthropy this moment provides both hazard and opportunity. I’m going to say that all of this is going to be deeply uncomfortable, but I believe that the deeply uncomfortable place is precisely where we should be.

And I am going to say that we need both urgency and intention in our response to this important crossroads in history.

Ten years ago when I first joined the JRF we wanted to understand what Joseph Rowntree’s social evils looked like in the 21st century. We spent time in meetings across the UK, commissioning learned thinkers, and organised focus groups of the dispossessed. We discovered that

  • – rather to the surprise of all those who had said the whole concept of social evils was old fashioned <.li>
  • people did want to talk about evil. They used the word a lot and they suggested that every evil they were concerned about was shaped by poverty.

Poverty that sapped capability, strangled life chances, deepened isolation, and magnified difference and division. A poverty that was rapidly eroding, or distorting the very real social gains that had been made since Rowntree’s time.

It was poverty that was the common denominator in so many of the challenges we face as a society

It was poverty that destroyed the lives of families with a disabled child – where the triumph of medicine in keeping a child alive was undermined by the economic reality of raising that child with complex needs. It was poverty that brought dread to older people fearing an isolated old age. It was poverty that divided communities, and made it so hard to welcome the stranger, the migrant, or the refugee. It was poverty that divided generations, and destroyed solidarity. It was poverty that created the educational attainment gap, and it was poverty that eroded so many of the gains of the last few decades in terms of equality. While people rejoiced at the relatively recent emancipation of women, they also recognised that the costs of this were frequently borne by other women leading increasingly impoverished and precarious lives. That while discrimination on the grounds of sexuality was now less overt, and freedoms unimagined by former generations were available, in some of the poorest communities, the gains of equality were undermined by persistent and damaging poverty. Poverty, we concluded, divides communities, pits people against each other and threatens cohesion.

What we found was that even before the global financial crisis of 2008, the fantastic social progress of the boom years had left far too many people behind, and made the lives of some others immeasurably worse. Economic prosperity at the turn of the 21st century had emphatically not helped all to thrive, but had instead introduced a new and infinitely more punishing divide.

What our assembled experts and the communities affected by poverty shared was a deep unease at what our society had become, and how we have so carelessly squandered the gains that were meant to end social evils.

The poverty identified in that process was real, and of course, after a decade of austerity there is no denying that it is with us today.

In 2012 we committed to marshalling all of that evidence, all of that knowledge, to understand what it would take to make the UK free of poverty. In this our biggest programme yet, we wanted to answer not just the question why, but also the question how? How in our modern, wealthy world can we find a way to end poverty? And if – as we do – we recognise poverty as something that affects us all, what can we all do to end it?

We could not have known then just how relevant the questions of poverty and place would be now

We should not leap to instant conclusions about the underlying reasons behind the vote to leave the European Union last week. But to identify distrust, disaffection, and anger in the places that felt left behind does not require massive powers of discernment. Nor does it seem to me remotely unreasonable that people who feel they have not experienced any of the fruits of growth, and indeed feel punished by it, should reject the recommendations of those they perceive to be the elite. There was always a risk that the referendum result would be seen by many people as illegitimate if it had been won by the establishment. As things have turned out that same establishment – of which philanthropic organisations are very much a part – should think carefully about why its recommendation was rejected.

We know that public discourse treats people in poverty alternately with pity or scorn. It would be truly wrong if either pity or scorn were used to dismiss the anger of those who feel left behind.

But it would also be wrong to fail to see the impact of this decision – both short term and long term – on the poorest communities. The rapid license for racism and xenophobia has shocked me to the core. So too has the threats to the immense gains made in Northern Ireland, and the withdrawal of investment, energy and political will from the issues which many of us hold dear.

We recognise that the answers to poverty are not held in one place. It would be as foolish to think that everything can be solved by neighbourhood action, as it would be to look to national governments alone to provide the solution. While we know that it is individuals who get themselves out of poverty, it would be naïve to think that individual behaviour alone accounts for levels of poverty in the UK.

It is the interaction of the state, the market and the individual that profoundly shapes how we live and, I will argue later, can also illuminate how we can make a difference.

Let’s start with the role of the state

The role of the state has changed profoundly, even before last week’s events. There is a shared understanding, if not commitment across the political divide, to keep public expenditure well south of 40% of GDP At a time when few economists predict any significant increase in growth any time soon, this means that reductions in public expenditure will remain part of the environment for the foreseeable future. We can argue about the ratios. We can dispute whether 37.5 or 42% would be more appropriate, or make the case that a different form of redistributive taxation would work better. But the way the state behaves has changed. Power is dispersed, differentially and asymmetrically. The role of the state in public policy has changed. Regulation has replaced delivery; political expressions of concern have replaced intervention. Entitlement and a version of rights have been replaced by conditionality and temporary support.

Civil society has changed too

The powers and impact of trades unions has diminished while that in some other parts of civil society has increased. Who would have predicted that the voice of the lowest paid would also be articulated, to such good effect, through Citizens UK with their effective campaign for the Living Wage?

The role of the market has been transformed. Global companies, bigger than many nation states, hold information and knowledge, and exert a powerful influence over our lives and the direction of governments. The so-called sharing economy develops new businesses, and uses the power of the digital platform to create wealth –enormous riches for their owners – in ways that we could never have imagined. Air b n b, uber, task rabbit and e bay may have a folksy tone and the sharing word in their vocabulary, but they are major companies trading vast sums of money, frequently operating outside of regulation. Alongside these developments we see a dramatically reconfigured labour market for services, where those who earn least also face insecurity in short-term, part-time precarious work.

Let’s make this clear – this is work that starts low paid, and for four out of five people is still low paid 10 years later. The so called gig economy may bring gains for many but for others it is an extremely casual labour market. The rapid advance of automation and artificial intelligence will only serve to reinforce these longer term trends.

The housing market too, is one of entrenched uncertainty, ballooning costs and frequently poor quality

JRF research indicates that poorer people living in the private rented sector are likely to be paying 55% of their disposable income on their housing. And for a six month tenancy at that. This contrasts with the 13% that an owner occupier with a mortgage is likely to be paying.

The poor pay more – for their utilities, their borrowing, their food and their housing. The market prices rise very harshly, and poorer households are paying that price.

So we have a state that seems to be retreating, and a market offering precarious poorly paid work, to people living in insecure expensive housing, paying high costs for their essentials.

Poverty is real in the UK. We have reported on it for years, we have measured it and analysed it and put it under the microscope. Cut and slice it in any way you want, shift the measurements, fiddle with the definitions, year after year we have reported the shocking facts about poverty and we know that it is real. And it causes untold harm. First, of course to people who are poor whose opportunities are attenuated, who are more likely to raise children who themselves become poor, who are excluded from the benefits of our modern society, and prevented from genuine participation. People who face a life of debt and deprivation.

But it is not just about them. Poverty affects us all. It creates risk and uncertainty. It deprives us of skills and contribution. It fuels division, prevents long term sustainable growth. It is the common denominator in many of our social problems – the cause of much distress and misery. People who are poor suffer worse health, they are more likely to be victims of crime, they will succeed less well educationally, but the existence of poverty is not only about them. It is about all of us whose lives are enormously diminished by the continuing scourge of poverty. It limits the development of a truly prosperous country, it inhibits the return to sustainable growth, and it costs both the economy and the government a great deal.

After Thursday’s vote, surely everyone must realise the political and social consequences of overlooking the poorest people and places.

But that harm can be prevented. Poverty is not something like the weather; something about which we shrug our shoulders and accept is part of our lives. It is not even collateral damage for a fast moving economy. It is a conscious choice, and – as Nelson Mandela said – like all manmade problems, is susceptible to a manmade response.

The solutions are in our hands. We know what needs to be done, and we know how to do it.

So what is the role of philanthropy here?

The prevention and relief of poverty is the first head of charity, and has been since Elizabeth I signed the statute. As a society we have made huge progress – reductions in pensioner poverty are a true testament to the power of public policy, yet poverty persists. Millions struggle to make ends meet, including increasingly those in working households. And 1.25 million people are destitute. JRF has been reporting for decades on the growth of poverty, and in the last ten we have been talking about the increasing phenomenon of in work poverty. Should we admit that it may be the first head of charity, but we have failed dismally? Does this demonstrate systemic failure? Does it suggest that the problem is simply too big for philanthropic effort? Should we accept that historic, societal market failure on this sort of scale is just too big for us to address?

For JRF this will not do

The eradication of poverty is written into our DNA. Our founder Joseph Rowntree counted the number of people in poverty in York at the start of the 20th century. He calculated the amount of money that a working man needed to keep his family in conditions that while modest, were not austere. He published and analysed, and with his son Seebohm, laid much of the groundwork for public policy today. He left some of his considerable fortune with the injunction to ‘find out the reason why’. This legacy we carry today. But he also left a supremely practical bequest: Joseph Rowntree combined a spirit of inquiry, with a bold and realistic focus. In instructing us to change the face of England, he ensured that, for JRF at least, philanthropy is never about the status quo.

But a new approach to poverty is needed – one which recognises the changed reality of life in the UK in the 21st century, and marshals the considerable power of philanthropy to conquer this most persistent, most damaging social evil. Can we be as bold as those early giants of philanthropy like Rowntree, Cadbury and Peabody and say, at this pivotal moment, we are called to do something important, and we will behave differently to achieve it.

In the rest of this lecture I want to argue that we should.

But I also want to argue that our considerable privilege and advantage means that not only should we do so, but we must do it with urgency and a clear intent.

But first, let’s acknowledge that philanthropy is not, ever, an unalloyed good.

Philanthropy can represent what is best about us. Quite literally the love of others, the use of time, talent and money to benefit others. It is the best possible example of inter-generational wealth transfer, making decisions in one generation to benefit and sustain future generations with no regard for return, popularity or gratitude. The philanthropist as an activist with money, as one such, very wealthy, philanthropist described himself to me.

But it can also represent what is worst about us. Philanthropy can be a sort of detached benevolence, protecting investment at the expense of engagement, knowing best and using the power of money to drive change. As a recent critic described us – low risk investment companies channelling a small percentage of our assets into philanthropy. It can be another manifestation of the privileged and closeted elites. Making decisions for others with too little thought of the consequences. Disconnected, illegitimate, out of touch.

We know only too well where criticisms like that take us. We need to earn our space – and we do this by a clear and unequivocal contribution to the public good. We cannot afford to be seen as part of the problem. I’m interested in a modern, engaged, networked philanthropy, which is most definitely part of the solution.

So in the best traditions of the detective solving a crime I look for three things, opportunity, motive and means. We have opportunity. The opportunity of a critical juncture, a time when so much is changing. This gives us an opportunity to intervene.

We have motive because we know that the huge privilege of great wealth requires us to use that money in the very best possible way, and we have talked for decades about the need to make a difference, have an impact.

Are we lacking the means? I am going to argue that we don’t.

Philanthropy has extraordinary power

It has the power to shine a bright light on what is happening, and ensure that there is no place in the UK where poverty, squalor and disadvantage can be hidden, covered up or ignored. The first ingredient of any social change is knowledge, and philanthropy has the capacity to draw attention to the realities on the ground, making sure that the evidence is there, that poverty cannot simply be hidden by different measurement. The uncovering of evidence can happen at neighbourhood, city, and national level. We can ensure that the experience of people living in poverty is documented, and described.

It has the power to enable the voice of those who live in poverty and to ensure that those voices are heard, and listened to. Not met with the oscillating insults of pity or scorn. Yet there is, at the moment, no organisation of the dispossessed. No funded platform on which people can speak about their experience. We can fund the poverty truth commissions, we can support artistic and creative depictions of true lived experience. We can fund the films that tell the real story and challenge the poisonous rhetoric of so much that passes as commentary. We can support the organisations of the dispossessed.

Philanthropy has the power to enable the challenging alternatives. To disrupt those markets that lock poor people in poverty. We can challenge the market to provide differently. Bright House offers furniture in beautiful and attractive ways. Wonga offers easy access to quick finance. The eye watering bills come later. Civil society has the power to challenge these giants – philanthropy has the capacity to make it possible. The poverty premium is paid by those least able to bear the costs. The wealth of philanthropy can send a powerful market signal that we stand on the side of people and places in poverty, and will support initiatives to reduce costs.

We can attend to the places where poverty feels locked in. Where the public realm feels – and is – degraded, where housing is both squalid and expensive, and where people feel diminished by their environment. We can actively, and long term, support those neighbourhoods and communities which for so many people provide the first defence against poverty. We have done all this before and we can it do it again.

We can make it our organising purpose to get rid of the attainment gap. Those of us concerned with the second head of charity – education – can make it clear that the fact that the attainment gap is visible at the age of three and only increases hereafter is a national scandal. We can recognise that the attainment gap is a cold technocratic label for the systematic destruction of people lives, and their opportunity to contribute.

We can show by our actions, and by our long term sustained investment that there are solutions to poverty. That it is not inevitable and that intervention commands support. We can use our grant making, commissioning and social investment powers to transform the landscape in which poor people live, and so doing make the case for coherent long term and bold but practical responses.

But we can do more

The philanthropic holders of great wealth – those with endowments – own companies. Those companies have moved on issues of climate change. The competition between companies is now to be greener and cleaner, and manage their contribution to the physical environment. Not as much as many of us would like, but they have moved, and they have moved because their investors demand it. We know that low wages sap the economy, and damage cities. We know that employee engagement is the prize for all big employers, and we know that financial anxiety destroys engagement. We know that business loathes insecurity. It is time that we raised, as we did about slavery in the supply chain, the questions of labour market practices, the ways in which companies contribute to their local economies, must all become subjects for the activist investor.

We have the power to mobilise. As philanthropic institutions in Europe did in response to the crisis in the Mediterranean and the huge movement of refugees. As philanthropy did when the Berlin Wall came down and there was a need to support civil society in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. As we did in this country when AIDS threatened the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.

And finally we have the power of our institutions. Big investment organisations like foundations, or universities, housing associations or hospitals are anchors in their communities. They hold assets in trust for future generations. They also have long supply chains, which reach deep into their communities. Their procurement decisions, their recruitment decisions, the approach they bring to HR, all have a multiplier effect. And if that effect is part of overcoming poverty, that institutional power works several times over.

We have the power to convene – to bring people together, to explore new truths, and challenge long held views. We have the leadership to create, and the wealth to support alternatives. This is not just ameliorative, reformist stuff. This approach shifts the balance between the rich and the poor in ways that are fundamentally, and profoundly daring. This approach says loudly and clearly that not only is a continuing high level of poverty a shame and a disgrace, it is something which a civilised advanced society cannot tolerate.

This approach also mobilises people at all levels – the holders of wealth and the holders of knowledge, those with experience and those with enterprise, to say that there is something that can be done. The relief of poverty is an abiding purpose and one to which we will apply our considerable muscle, not because we choose to do so, but because it is essential for the development and continuation of a genuinely prosperous, engaged and democratic society.

At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation we have reconnected with our heritage. We seek to be both bold and practical. Focused on the evidence but also the solutions. Working with partners. We are about to publish the summary of several years’ work answering the question, how do we solve poverty? And we have concluded that it is possible for us to do this. That we can work towards a society where nobody is ever destitute. Where no more than 10 % of the population are ever poor, and that no one who is poor remains so for more than two years. We know that people will become poor: ill health, disability, divorce and unemployment are all risks we all face. They don’t need to be catastrophic.

A dynamic, intelligent, evidence based approach intervenes to prevent poverty. We need to reduce the numbers entering poverty and increase the numbers escaping. This means slowing the rate of entry through preventative policies, increasing incomes and reducing costs in the short-term so that poverty is not a long-term experience. It also means improving prospects for the longer-term to increase the rate at which people escape poverty. Poverty needs to be addressed across the life stages: ensuring that childhood and the early years provide the best possible start in life to prevent poverty in adulthood; increasing incomes during working life and reducing the costs of essential goods and services; and reducing poverty in later life.

So an opportunity in the time we are in. The fundamental reordering of our common settlement which is affecting the lives of people in poverty just as profoundly as the Industrial Revolution, and later the massive and ill prepared de- industrialisation of so many parts of the UK. Changes that we look back on in sorrow for the lack of care that consigned so many people to the scrap heap. We have motive because we know we need to make a difference. We know that we have to have an impact. That none of us want to be accused of funding by whim, or without thought. And motive too because we know that unless we have impact the fragile peace within the communities we support will be destroyed. We have seen the effects of that fracturing recently, and there will be more to come.

And we have the means, because we have powers that very few others hold.

Motive, opportunity and means

But also risk and sacrifice. To focus is to say no to some things. It is to devote your powers to one end, and to do so in ways that mean you cannot do other things. It means attracting opprobrium and criticism from those who feel their project or cause is ignored or underfunded. Disruptive philanthropy may be more effective, but it won’t necessarily garner the tributes we are used to enjoying. It requires difficult choices to be made, and surprising friends being nurtured.

Will philanthropy alone conquer poverty? Of course not.

Poverty is caused by a dysfunctional market – by businesses paying and the economy in which they operate tolerating a low price for labour, providing work that is unreliable and insecure, housing that is inadequate, and costs that have spiralled out of all control. It is caused by governments, at UK, national, city and local level, which have encouraged growth without ensuring that it is inclusive. Policies that have eroded and devalued the social security safety net so that it no longer adequately provides insurance against the inevitable vulnerabilities and reversals of life. A series of political decisions have reduced social housing to a residual minimum, all of this empowered and fuelled by a public discourse about poverty that is toxic, ill-informed and ignorant.

In this broken environment, poverty flourishes. Philanthropy has the opportunity to intervene and say: in this country we know how to reduce poverty. We will keep an eagle eye on what is happening. We will fund the things that make a difference. We will ensure that people in poverty are heard, and we will do this in ways that make it impossible for governments and for the market to ignore us.

The power of philanthropy has changed the course of history before. It can do so again. And think how powerful it would be if were to act on this together.

Where next for civil society?

Julia Unwin's inaugural lecture for the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) given at their AGM, 24 November 2016, at the Millenium Centre, Cardiff Bay

Where next for civil society?

This is an amazing building, a tribute both to the drive and commitment of Welsh civil society, and the confidence of a capital city marking its status as a place with a proud history and massive potential. It’s the perfect place to accept the challenge that I have been given by WCVA – to consider the future of civil society in 10, 20 and indeed 30 years’ time.

I come with no astrological chart to predict the future, no handy road map to the Promised Land. Instead I come with experience working in and around civil society, and at the end of my 10-year term leading the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation that has spent over 100 years understanding the causes of social evils and perhaps even more importantly, searching for the practical solutions to those evils. I come the month before I take on chairing an inquiry into civil society in England which will need to be both wide ranging and deep. The WCVA invitation is as timely as it is appropriate.

I want to start by commending the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action. In setting me the question for this inaugural lecture they are demonstrating the essential leadership that our sector so urgently needs. In our current troubled environment, short term responses, freely mixed with panic, are easy and oh so tempting. Quick solutions. Rapid fixes. Saying what we’ve always said, and getting what we’ve always got. Protecting what is, lamenting what’s past – we have all done that. But our times are too challenging and too fast changing for that sort of glib reaction. Peter and Ruth have asked me to stay away from the obvious and look more deeply, and I hope more creatively, at where we are, and therefore where we might be. I come with far more questions than answers but that, I am convinced, is the right way to approach this huge issue.

This is the right time to do it, and this is the right place to start.

So why now?

My time as Chief Executive of JRF has been exciting, challenging and never dull. I am very proud that on 6 September we published a comprehensive, long term plan for solving poverty in the four nations of the UK. Proud because it is evidence based, proud because it speaks to individuals and families, communities, employers and investors, local, national and central government. But also, proud because it involved people in poverty – assessing the research, commenting on the recommendations, and launching the report. And I am proud because it speaks both to civil society and to the four nations of the UK.

On the 8 November, here in Cardiff, with the Bevan Foundation we launched the Welsh version. We did this not because we wanted something with a Welsh accent. We did it because one of the defining features of public policy, and I would say civil society, in the last twenty years has been the engine of devolution, the recognition that countries and regions have distinct identities but bring their own resources and capability to resolutions. I don’t know if it was ever possible, or right, for an organisation like JRF based in the north of England to speak and hope to be heard in Swansea or Llandudno in the same way that it might be heard in Leeds or Manchester. It certainly isn’t possible now. And that change is because of governmental policy, but is also because of the power of civil society, through politics, through activism, through the arts and through creativity, at community and national level, ensuring those voices are heard.

In Wales JRF has worked in partnership for nearly 10 years with the Bevan Foundation and supported by our advisers, first Viv Sugar and later Michael Trickey, to ensure that, as far as possible, we are able to respond to those differences as they manifest themselves in Wales and act in a way that is both credible and connected.

But let us move the focus from place to time.

My time at JRF has been book-ended by major game-changing (if you’ll forgive the cliché) events.

The 2008 financial crisis was probably the biggest wake -up call in our lives. And it changed everything dramatically. The inter-connected nature of our global economy – which we had all talked about for years – was suddenly revealed in all its precarious uncertainty. Housing activity in the rust belt of Ohio had an immediate and marked impact in the Ronda Valley. Wobbles on the Shanghai Stock Exchange profoundly affected the outlook for Port Talbot. And as we watched wealthy bankers, and their much less wealthy cleaners and support staff, vacate their offices in Lehman Brothers in New York, we knew that our world would change. As we watched queues of people outside Northern Rock branches desperate to take out their savings we knew that trust and confidence had evaporated. And as banks deemed too big to fail were rescued, amid rumours of cashpoints running out of money, we all knew that public expenditure would take a massive hit.

Fast forward to 2016 and the country votes to leave the European Union. A second wake-up call if you like, although like the global financial crisis, one that really should not have been a surprise. Shocked commentators in London told us how surprised they were, and politicians on both sides of the debate looked stunned. But those of us living and working in Wales, in Hartlepool where JRF supports a retirement community, in the overlooked and too often ignored parts of the country, knew better.

We could see that people feel abandoned and ignored, they feel that growth has not reached them and those they know and love. They feel that they’re paying too high a price for rapid change without receiving any of the benefits. So they voted to reject the recommendation of the political class, from big business and from commentators. They voted leave because they weren’t satisfied with what they have.

And because they didn’t feel able to change things.

Whether you think the vote was a triumph for sovereignty and the start of a bright new future, or you think it was a catastrophic error, or like the majority of British people, you are still not entirely sure – we can all agree that the vote provides us with certainty about one thing. Our economic future will itself be uncertain. For those of us concerned with the strength and depth of communities, who worry about the glue that binds us as a society – this uncertain economic future challenges our hopes and plans. An economic recession. A social recession. We can never disentangle them.

Then hot on the heels of Brexit – again confounding the commentators – came the vote in the United States to elect Donald Trump, the candidate who claims that ‘the forgotten men and women will not be forgotten again’.

Of course, there are differences between those two events and the newspapers, social media and instant publishing of the next few months will spell out in great detail the precise differences, but we can acknowledge some truths that they have in common:

  • there are people and places that feel excluded and marginalised, and believe that safety first is not safe for them
  • there are people and places who feel let down by what they see as the establishment, and betrayed by those they used to trust
  • that policy makers who make lazy assumptions about people and places they neither know or understand are doomed to fail.

The Crash of 2008, the Brexit vote, the Trump election. These events were of a global order. We can put a date on them. Reminisce about where we were when we first realise that the global economy was imperilled. Remember the surprise on the morning of 24 June when we realised that Britain had shifted course. But between those points there were other major changes that shape the voluntary sector and inform any consideration of the future of civil society.

For civil society, it has never been more important to look ahead.

But we need to do so with confidence in our history and our achievements. We can see so far now because we stand on the shoulders of giants. We in civil society have a long and honourable heritage. We provided the great civil institutions that made the massive transition of the Industrial Revolution tolerable. We responded to the moral panic of urban squalor in the nineteenth century by developing institutions for fallen women, and those of Dr Barnardo, and also by the trades union movement. The great philanthropists such as Bridget Bevan in Wales, Joseph Rowntree in York, and George Cadbury in Birmingham did not wait for permission. They identified a problem and marshalled their significant financial and intellectual resource to address it. The working men’s clubs, reading rooms and welfare organisations of the Welsh Valleys were created out of struggle and out of a determination to improve life for fellow citizens. The settlements and girls brigades, refugee associations, befriending societies – are part of our history and proof that we have a rich and effective history of strong civil society. We supported the new settlement at the end of the Second World War – a time when Europe was ravaged by war, dealing with displaced persons and refugees, austerity and rationing, by building and supporting new initiatives.

There is power and capability in civil society. We must never forget it.

Because times now are hard. Social capital is challenged; the bonds of solidarity are undermined. We need to identify and name the changes that have built social capital and supported civil society, but just as importantly we need to acknowledge clearly the changes that are currently depleting and threatening.

Insecurity at home

We need to acknowledge the high level of volatility and insecurity in our lives. A precarious labour market, at least at the lower end, with part time work and a new form of self-employment, as hyper flexibility re-created the old world of casual labour in many industries. And all in an economy which seems to show few signs of growth, but offers entrenched uncertainty and insecurity. A labour market in which the prospects for progression seemed vanishingly small and about which JRF was able to report that four out of five people who started work low paid, remained in poverty 10 years later. A decade in which food banks have mushroomed and the high costs of borrowing for the poorest shot up. An insecure housing market in which people in all tenures – renting socially or privately, or seeking to buy their own homes – feel (and indeed are) insecure and uncertain.

And in Wales we know that 25% of the population haven’t got enough to make ends meet.

That pace of change and consequent insecurity seems unlikely to stall. The advent of artificial intelligence, robotics and adaptive technology, brings huge advantages of course. But it brings uncertainty and change to individuals and families across Wales and beyond. We know from previous major economic transitions that the aftershocks persist through generations. And we also know that all of these changes to our economic security both imperil civil society and place massive demands on our stock of social capital.

Public expenditure and public services

Let’s face it, there has never been a time in my working life when people didn’t lament the reductions in public expenditure. The sound track of our lives has often been about limited resources, rationing and making do. But this is different. In 2010 major changes took place and continue to have an impact in spending round after spending round. The fundamental repurposing of local authorities – so that the best and most clear sighted frequently describe themselves as convenors and advocates, knowing full well that the days of delivering services are largely, at least for now, over. While the former Chancellor of the Exchequer could announce in London huge transfers within the economy, transformations in the way in which money is allocated, and in effect a dramatic reversal of old conventions about the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state – it is the local authorities and voluntary organisations of every part of the UK that have restructured, reorganised and in far too many cases, simply ceased to trade.

Hardship caused by financial decisions may – some will argue – be necessary, but it is hardship nonetheless, and voluntary organisations across the UK know the real cost and the real pain of these massive changes. They know of the neighbourhoods with vanishing services: the places where emptying the bins is as much as can be achieved; the dilapidated public realm; the isolated older people left unvisited; the chaos of so much of our social care.

Let’s just remind ourselves that the voluntary sector predicted that much of this would happen. We didn’t just complain about our own future and security. And we predicted it not because we are exceptionally clever, but because we have the expertise and the relationships to assess the impact of policy on people. For us it can never be an accounting exercise.

We also know that these changes spell a huge increase in the demand for social capital, and a big reduction in the support available to build it.

Global insecurity

The major drivers of migration – the power of technology, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the opening up of China and India, and the spate of trade agreements in the 1990s – are felt today in every part of the UK. While economists and business tell us that migration is an absolute good, and many of us know from our own lives that the movement of people has enriched and strengthened our communities, we must not be naïve or glib. Migration brings challenges as much as it brings opportunities. The highest increase in the numbers of people born outside the UK has, the always excellent Migration Observatory tells us, been in Merthyr Tydfil where the migrant population increased by 227% between 2001 -2011. That’s a lot of change to deal with.

The horrifying scenes from the Mediterranean and from the Jungle in Calais challenge any notion of ourselves as an open welcoming society. Cities of Sanctuary across Wales are an essential expression of positive open handed welcome and hospitality.

There are things to celebrate, but we should acknowledge that in 1997 just 3% of the population reported that migration was a problem. It is now 37%.

That too impacts on civil society, and places demands on our stock of social capital.

Our sense of ourselves, our sense of identity, and our view of what defines us – what bonds our communities and our societies will look very different in the future.

Breakdown of trust

As long as I can remember there has been talk about decline in trust. The great institutions of the country – the church, trades unions, the Royal Family, the press, parliament and the judiciary – have all suffered from a breakdown in trust, a growth in scepticism, an absence of the automatic deference which, we are told, they previously enjoyed. In the last decade we have witnessed this loss of trust for our sector too. Criticisms of charities in the press from politicians and from commentators are not new, but we need to listen hard: self-serving elite; a remote source of power; bodies variously paying themselves too much, or paying their poorer staff too little, and frequently both. Organisations which are hard to engage with and impossible to understand. Service providers offering pretty poor services. A sector that erects barriers to entry, stopping new ideas and approaches. Organisations that represent the loudest voices, and further entrench inequality.

In a digitally enabled world, reputation – as the leading businesses know – is even more hard won and easily lost. The power to investigate, to challenge and to expose is not just for those of us who see our role as holding markets and government to account. It is a challenge which we must also face.

Digital transformation

10 years ago it was easy to say that the digital revolution would change not just how we did things, but what we did. We were all excited about search engines and algorithms, the ability to self-publish and the power to communicate. But in the intervening decade the impact of the digital revolution really has changed everything and changed it very fast. Try remembering what life was like before we had a fully operating computer in every pocket. Laugh with me at how you have outsourced your memory to your iPhone. Notice the precisely targeted advertising that comes your way every time you look at your tablet.

Jamie Bartlett from Demos has demonstrated the ways in which this combination of accurate data analytics and powerful communication capability is changing the way we do democracy here. A supermarket loyalty card knows more about you than your nearest and dearest. Social activism of all sorts can be described disparagingly as mere criticism but it drives behaviour and drives change. Information and money goes round the world at the touch of a button. Knowledge shared, movements built, lies broadcast, and hate crime thrives. The post truth politics, the changed nature of evidence – the digital revolution has changed us.

We can talk about the power of digital transformation with breathless excitement, but we need to acknowledge that it is not all good. It has unleashed a whole new set of power dynamics and has enabled the agglomeration of wealth just as surely as previous industrial revolutions. Global monopolies controlling information and connectivity have power that we simply could not have imagined. The apparently cosy names of Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Twitter and Deliveroo hide companies which have got infinitely wealthier, where conditions of work have been eroded, by companies who hold that commodity which is now infinitely more valuable than diamonds or oil – information.

Big changes and some eternal truths.

Our continuing failure to take seriously the very real threats to our planet and to our ever more scarce natural resources has been given license by our distracting economic and political crisis. Our ageing population, never better educated, never healthier, but at the same time containing more people with disabilities, more people suffering from mental illness, more people recovering from diseases – sources of celebration, of course, but also drivers of change.

Finally our increasingly fractured and worryingly divided communities. Communities that are split on generational lines. Places where race, ethnicity and faith splinter and divide, where people struggle to find the common good. Places where solidarity is diminished and overlooked, where we seek identity in what distinguishes us, not that which brings us together.

That’s why I say now is the right time to look again at the purpose of civil society. To spend some time considering what role we can play in the future. A future which seems more uncertain than it ever has been, but one in which we have tools, talents and capability, much of which has been provided by changes.

Civil society does not exist in a vacuum: the changes to the state, its legitimacy, and its power shape us. So do changes in the market and the way in which capitalism operates. The major shifts in power, the vast inequality around us, the very real risks to cohesion, the ever-present prospect of civil unrest, are all expressions of the highly politicised world we inhabit.

We know a bit about what it takes to build strong civil society, and its close cousin social capital. We also know quite a lot about how to destroy it. In our current highly insecure world, in which trust is a precious commodity, and in which division flourishes, we need to think carefully, openly and creatively about what strengthens civil society, and how all of us can work to make sure that we are ready to contribute wholeheartedly to the challenges that lie ahead.

If, as I have argued, our future will make demands on social capital and civil space, I’d also like to argue that it is civil society that can pose questions, and may help provide a route to some of the answers.

But before I go on, I do need to acknowledge how hard this is. Building civil society is not easy or fluffy. Associational life is challenging and messy. The promotion of the common good requires complicated and uncomfortable trade-offs. It requires us to ‘speak of unspeakable things’. It demands levels of self-awareness, and commitment. A willingness to engage where it is difficult. To face the complexity of life, and our contradictory needs, wants and aspirations. Civil society is not for the faint hearted, the sloganeering or those who simply want to call for a better way of being. It is for those who really do want to create lasting social change, and a more sustainable society.

That’s why I say now is the time to take stock. The market has changed. The state has changed. The economy has changed. and our operating environment has changed. Now is the moment for civil society to look at itself and say –should we change? And if so how?

For too long we have as a sector looked outside for approval, for validation, sometimes for permission. We have sought UK wide answers to questions that are best addressed locally. We have challenged the infrastructure to support us better. And all these things matter but at a time of devolution, at a time when the central state, although we are still hugely centralised, is at least considering the devolution of power and in many places power is being seized, isn’t this absolutely the right time for civil society to look to its own future, set is own course and challenge itself about where we go next?

Discussions about civil society all too often end in recommendations that are either entirely transactional, or risk being platitudinous. We veer from saying that the answer lies in some different contractual relationship between local procurement authorities and the organisations of civil society, or we call on all of us to be nicer kinder people.

In thinking about this I am struck by a quote from Parker Palmer, the American Quaker:

We have to stop swinging wildly between corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism because these two states result in inaction. We have to learn to hold the tension, and live into the paradox.

Parker Palmer

This encapsulates the tension in our sector. We can demand better contractual terms. We can argue that if only our regulatory framework was more appropriate all would be good. We can say that the funding ecology is not fit for purpose. We can gripe that we are not suitably respected. And in all of these statements we were correct. We are seeing our future in fixes, and in process change. Changes that we need, but when we pursue them at the expense of all others we are corrosively cynical.

Or we can rush to irrelevant idealism. We can argue that our contribution is worthless while we still face economic inequality. That until poverty and hunger are relieved, we can only paper over the cracks. Or alternatively we can plead with people to be better, and somehow nicer. To imagine that the hard work of building community can be done through exhortation. Idealism is always vital – it is the life force that gets us out of bed in the morning. But irrelevant idealism, that dismisses pragmatism, that seeks only perfection, is as paralysing as corrosive cynicism.

As a sector we are at our very best when we hold these two in tension. Seeking the practical, the effective, the change, while keeping our eyes resolutely on the destination.

So where do we go? How does civil society become the strong force in our society that enables the flourishing of human capability? The bookends of my time at JRF have been the global financial crisis, and as I come to an end there, the decision to leave the European Union. This evening I have celebrated our history of achievement. I have explored how society has changed in that time. I have demonstrated that poorer people and places face crippling insecurity. I have said that communities are more divided than ever before. I have said that there are huge opportunities in our changing population, and in the digital revolution, to really make a difference. I have said that all of these changes both challenge civil society, and demand more from us. I think we now need to ask some pretty fundamental questions:

  • do we know what our purpose is?
  • do we understand and value the role of place?
  • are we really building relationships and connecting between people as we need to?


So starting with purpose. You may think that this is self-evident. Organisational theory Level 1. Don’t we start every strategic away day talking about purpose? Those of us leading charities can recite our founding documents, we know the heads of charity, and we know that we need to demonstrate public benefit. But I mean something much more profound than that. I mean the consideration of what we are really here to do. Much of civil society is based on the idea of belonging, of affiliation. Many of our most powerful and long lasting organisations build associational life. They do it either as RSPB Cymru, or the Cambrian Male Voice Choir, a new self-build sustainable community, or a neighbourhood watch scheme, or any one of the thousands of voluntary and community organisations in membership of WCVA. Building connections between people. Building a sense of belonging, as a community of place or a community of purpose. Linking people without power to people with power. Sharing problems. Jointly developing solutions. The origins of all of our great institutions – including the one we meet inside today – come from groups of people getting together, assembling resource, and jointly making change for themselves and for their fellow citizens. That builds trust. It gives direction. It enables growth.

I make the point about affiliation and associational life not just because it’s true and important, but also because our origins as places of affiliation and membership seem sorely tested

In part it has of course been the resource environment. What talk about civil society could avoid talking about funding and resource? There have been restrictions on funding for voluntary and community organisations, and this has inevitably had an impact on the effectiveness of those organisations. Of course that’s true. But it’s not the whole story. There is also the way in which that funding has been available. A focus on outcomes was of course important. I remember arguing for it, and being impressed by the quality and depth of the arguments. I even wrote a book about full cost recovery, making the case that the overhead costs needed to be paid as well as the unit costs. Did that focus on outcomes change not just how we worked but what we did? Did that risk monetising our beneficiaries? Did it blind us to the wider context in which people’s lives are shaped? More worryingly of all, have we confused accountability to our funders – a technical and important accountability – with accountability to our members and to our beneficiaries, a true sense of connection and engagement?

I think we have a number of purposes, and they are not only the ones that are listed in most of our founding documents.

We have the purpose of connection, of bringing people together, of fostering affiliation, and membership; connection which builds bridges between people, and further bridges between them and power.

We have the purpose of voice. Not speaking on behalf of people, not wringing our hands about unheard voices, but making sure that in everything we do we provide a platform to ensure that the dispossessed cannot be ignored. That will take us to angry and difficult places. It will challenge our precious professionalism, but if we have learned nothing else, we have learned people need their own voice.

And we have the purpose of mediation. Of recognising that our lives are always and everywhere made up of competing priorities. There is tension between the preservation of green space, and the need for new housing. There is tension between people who have lived in a neighbourhood for generations, and their new and maybe challenging neighbours. The tension between generations. Civil society in all its forms can create tools to enable people to speak, and to listen, can support those whose voices are ignored, and can support people through the really difficult decisions that we will need to make.


Place matters. The global elite may talk about having no sense of place, of being happy to settle wherever they stop. Of proudly being citizens of the world. And in many senses they are right. We are all migrants and we all move. But where we live matters, and place matters hugely in two ways. It matters because there are places where poverty is locked in. Where transport has vanished, and there are no jobs. Where the routes to employment are blocked, and people do not even get the jobs on their own doorstep, as recent JRF research demonstrated. But there is also the other sense of place: of place as a sense of identity, of belonging, of being part of something. Places where the public realm depresses rather than inspires, where the high street is dilapidated and the implicit message is that people who live here don’t count, they don’t deserve better.

Civil society can elevate place both through the power of transaction and the power of emotion. Civil society bodies are economic actors. But we can also inspire. Bring beauty to places that are overlooked, make culture something available to all, not just the elite who can afford to go to Cardiff’s opera house. Strong place based civil society engenders confidence and pride – that’s what we’ve always done. Are we doing it enough? Do we know enough about the power of place and the way in which solidarity is forged, or destroyed? This too is a challenge to our sector. Place making is in our DNA. The vast majority of civil society organisations are in places. From universities to housing associations, to community foundations and neighbourhood groups, place matters to us, and the prospects and opportunities for places matter. They matter because they provide a sense of hope and a sense of belonging. They matter because people in places with prospects feel safer, and are more inclined to participate. Places matter because our public life is a conversation – and it’s a conversation that starts locally, and involves people concerned about place.


And finally people matter. Every part of civil society has been animated by a relationship. By an engagement between two people. And yet to speak of such things is to risk the shuffling embarrassment when we talk about kindness, and loneliness and the other things that we know really matter to us all. In a JRF programme about loneliness one respondent said – and it moved me deeply:

I’d really like to talk to someone who wasn’t paid to talk to me.

Respondent to a JRF loneliness programme

Isn’t that the heart of civil society? The giving without reward. The fostering of good relationships. The mutuality which is neighbourliness. The kindness of strangers.


My decade leading one of the bigger civil society organisations has taught me that there are things we desperately need as a society which we know how to do. We need to support affiliation, we need to foster connection, we need to learn to mediate difference. To do that we need to recognise that our roots are in place and that places really matter, but so too do the relationships we foster.

We have powers and capabilities that the founders of civil society could only imagine. We have freedom and we have capability. The digital revolution brings us new ways of connecting, and gaining control. It enables the voices of the dispossessed to be amplified and their experience understood; our organisations bring knowledge and experience. We know how to develop new organisations and support and enable them. We know what our purpose is – it is to connect people to each other and so build a stronger more sustainable society.

Our sector at its very best is a connecting sector. It connects people without power to places of power. It connects within communities, and between them. It connects those who need with those who can give. It connects people with a shared interest. It enables voice and contact. It provides a welcome for the stranger. At its heart it provides for connection in our society.

In concluding let’s remember that the referendum result was achieved by a slogan – one which you can be sure was tested and examined in great detail. One which clearly had huge resonance both in the focus groups, and later in the ballot box.

‘Take back control’

We are the sector that promises control. That talks about self-governance. That holds in our midst the cooperatives and the mutual. That values associational life above all else. That knows in our bones that it is people taking control of their own lives that builds confidence and self-determination. That knows that agency matters for individuals and for places. That values self-organisation. It is our sector that has enabled groups of parents of children with profound and multiple learning difficulties to press for a better deal. It is our sector through trades unions and community action that have highlighted the slavery in our supply chain, and have provided both support and comfort, as well as achieving vital changes to the law. It is our sector that has brought together the people in the most dispossessed communities, fighting to change the environment in which they live. From Men’s Sheds to Impact Hubs, from neighbourhood renewal to allotment societies, from community drama to mentoring schemes – it is our sector that has championed the need of people to take back control.

To assert their values over a remote state, or a careless market.

It is our sector that has over decades connected communities, provided opportunities for engagement, and worked with others to ensure that injustice cannot survive. And it is our sector that has over so many decades organised and agitated to make sure that no one, and nowhere, can be overlooked.

And it’s never been more needed.

Why we need to build social capital in cities

Lecture given by Julia Unwin at the Human Cities Institute’s sixth Annual Lecture.

Why cities matter

Cities are central to the development of our world. By 2030, urban areas are expected to house 60% of the world’s population and generate up to 80% of global economic growth. Over the last 50 years, the percentage of people living in cities has increased from 34% to 54% and is believed to rise up to 66% by 2050, according to a report published in 2014 by the UN.

In the UK 61% of growth is generated by city regions. Nearly half the UK population live within the largest 15 metropolitan centres and, if the UK’s top 15 metropolitan centres were to realise their potential, it is estimated they would generate an additional £79bn growth.

Cities are powerful and dynamic engines of growth. They are growing in importance and impact. They can be the sources of innovation and creativity, bringing people together in new and unexpected ways and spawning the cultural quarters, the digital invention, the start-ups and connections that enable modern growth. They can be places where independence flourishes, where identity can be reinvented, where people can flourish and grow. Our very recent history has seen the cultural renaissance of Birmingham, the regeneration of central Bristol, the retail revolution of Leeds. It has witnessed the flowering of Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast, and the impact of the City of Culture in Hull and in Derry.

Across the UK cities were physically remodelled in the 1990s and early part of this century. They were bashed and damaged by the global financial crisis of 2008, and now they enjoy (if that is the right word) the prospect of changes to the administrative, legislative and political architecture.

Cities good and bad

In short, cities can be the place we become our best selves, the place where our human ingenuity and our capacity to support each other flourishes.

They can be places of sanctuary, providing warmth and a place for new and different identities to flourish. Look at the ways in which some cities have absorbed, welcomed and celebrated the arrival of immigrants with distinctive cultures, cuisines and capabilities. Look at the confidence and security of the ‘gay quarters’ of the 1990s, providing safety and support, and so often also supporting creativity and cultural reinvention. Cities can be places where we can be ourselves, liberated from some of the more stultifying aspects of small town life, and even, occasionally, our own families.

But cities can also be places of isolation, of poverty, and of misery. They can become places where innovation and creativity are driven out. Where the bonds of social engagement are attenuated and where solidarity is fatally eroded. They can become places where poverty is locked in. Places where progression and development is prohibited. Places where people without the support of family find alternative social networks impossible to access. Places which, while not actively hostile to the incomer, afford them so little welcome that in effect they remain for ever the stranger.

Why social capital matters to cities

It is the depth and the breadth of social capital in cities that distinguishes the creative, lively, bonded city, from the miserable dystopia I have painted. Cities where everyone is too busy to interact breed loneliness and despair. Cities where automation has made every interaction a soulless one, driving out human contact in the interests of speed and efficiency. Cities where the more vulnerable are shunned and ignored are cities of fear, not to mention huge potential costs. And cities where one of the very many people in the early stages of dementia receive no neighbourly support, and can only turn to A&E and the police, are cities that will be expensive to run.

Cities need the skills and assets of all their citizens. If people with money desert the city centre because of violence and danger, those centres will never thrive. If people as they reach retirement age leave the cities in which they worked, the city loses wisdom, and civic leadership. If cities are unaffordable for young people they lose economic potential. And if the nature of the return to growth simply locks poverty into particular areas, those cities will never become the engines of sustained growth and prosperity that a poverty-free UK demands.

Social capital is not an optional extra for a city. It is as fundamental as the financial capital and the skills base of any successful city.

The language of cities and the language of social capital

When we talk about cities we talk about the physical infrastructure, we talk about inward investment, skills matrices and the role of powerful institutions. When we talk about social capital we talk about kindness and generosity. We talk about families and neighbours. We talk about affinity and belonging, of liveability and about happiness and love. When we talk about cites we use the skills of economics and of physical planning. When we talk about social capital we learn from neuroscience and from behavioural economics. As so often these days I end up looking at Canada and the pioneering work of Charles Montgomery on what makes people happy, and therefore makes their cities successful.

It’s high time we talked about these things together.

What do we mean by social capital?

I identify three layers of social capital that are as essential in big cities as they are in tiny villages.

First there is the largely unexplored world of everyday kindness which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examined in a neighbourhood in Glasgow. Community participants were asked to list the everyday, often unacknowledged favours, bits of help and mutual help. Rather beautifully one described it as ‘spraying water on a spider’s web’ and some were amazed both at the strength of this apparently fragile web, but also its breadth and reach. Equally, others noted quite how thin their webs of support were, and how desperately isolated they were. This essentially reciprocal and vital layer of social capital needs nurture and care. It does not happen by accident and there are steps we can take to preserve and grow, just as surely as we can destroy.

We know that neighbourhood responses to poverty always start at this level. It is the shared fiver that circulates in so many families and social groups, the short term mini loans. It is the offers to babysit and the introduction to possible job starts, the offer of a sofa for a teenager that stops her from becoming homeless. Word of mouth and social networks are, and always have been, the front line defence against poverty.

The second layer involves the many organisations, groups, associations and businesses which contributed to help happening in a place – what sits between the very informal, person-to-person helping relationships and formal help and care.

The middle layer has an important role to play in creating the conditions for ‘ordinary kindness’, simply by encouraging social interaction. Groups, organisations and associations draw people together through shared interest or purpose; and they provide spaces within which interaction can happen. As such, they serve as junction boxes, connecting diverse strands of community and social networks. These networks and groups are worth fostering.

While there may be an apparent fit between the community sector and notions of everyday help and support, ‘ordinary kindnesses’ are evident in corporate or commercial settings too – whether a supermarket, café or corner shop. For example, in one area of Glasgow, the local supermarket was a place where interactions of kindness and help happened. In another area it was the local café that served as a meeting point and a source of help for local parents with children.

It is often when individuals transcend their formal or scripted roles that there is the greatest scope for small acts and relationships of help and support to emerge.

The third layer is the institutions that govern, as well as serve, the city, the neighbourhood. They are the ones that frequently absorb the available resource and talent. The anchor institutions, the housing associations, the local authority, the hospital, the university, and the funded voluntary organisation. How much do these bodies foster social capital? Are they providing services to customers, or are they building the strength and resilience of the communities they exist to serve?

Perhaps even more crucially, how much are these institutions and economic systems enabling the pre-conditions for strong social capital?

The pre-conditions for strong social capital

Social capital is not formed in a vacuum. What happens is shaped by our external environment, and what is happening around us is different from that faced by previous generations of city leaders.

Social Capital is in real peril. Our labour market has changed, and changed fundamentally. At the bottom end of the labour market our current economy produces part time, insecure and poorly paid work. People doing multiple jobs just to get by is becoming the norm, and increasingly the much vaunted ‘gig economy’ is actually producing a group of people who, while technically self-employed, seem to me to have many of the working conditions of the 19th century casual labourer.

At the bottom end of the labour market people lead poor and insecure lives, faced with higher costs and constantly managing debt. Work is undoubtedly for many of us the best route out of poverty. If the work is insecure, and has no progression (and four out of five people starting in low paid work are still low paid 10 years later) it does not provide a secure route.

People in poverty are also leading extremely crowded lives. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes it clear that the only possibility of escaping poverty for a couple with two children is for the family to at least have 1.6 incomes. This leaves precious little time for the creation of social capital – the support for neighbours and family, the engagement with others that is one element of the vital fuel for the growth of social capital.

The second element of this social capital fuel is security. There is good and compelling evidence, if we didn’t already know it from the personal experience of each of us, that a secure home is the necessary foundation for a route out of poverty, the best way of building a life, raising a family, and contributing to your neighbourhood. Our modern housing market increasingly lacks security. Life on a six month tenancy in the private rented sector or life on a short-term conditional tenancy in the social sector does not create the pre-conditions for contributing to strong secure neighbourhoods.

I have rarely been to a regeneration scheme and not encountered the (usually very angry) grandmother whose drive, persistence and commitment to improving the area has forced landlords, local authorities and investors to change. Home owners threatened by repossession, or playing the game of riding the current turbo charged housing market, are equally unlikely to develop those deep and sustained roots that are essential for social capital. Time, security – a sense of sufficiency – these are vital elements. But they are not the only ones.

Public services can support the formation of social capital, and they can just as readily destroy it. Evidence from across the UK makes it clear that there is no linear relationship between the support given by the state and other institutional providers. But at a time of huge reductions in local expenditure:

  • What we know is that very hard pressed communities are damaged by the current erosion of the basics of public service to communities – if you are struggling to survive the capacity to support others is jeopardised.
  • We know from Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded research that some of the programme of austerity has hit the poorest places in the UK hardest, and we also know that improved targeting of services – inevitable when resources are tight – will leave many needs unmet.
  • And we know that internationally as research from CIVICUS shows us the places for civic life are disappearing, and in this country, and in this city, the threats to libraries, cultural venues, and other places where people can meet, threaten and undermine participation and engagement.

Our interest in growing social capital for the good of our cities must take into account these real threats – the insecurity, shortage of time, and pressures on public finance.

Social capital in cities – a historic view

A bit of history about what we know of social capital in cities.

It was the Industrial Revolution that transformed the notion of a UK city. People moved from lives of grinding poverty to the new industrialised jobs of the 19th century; swapping back-breaking, poorly rewarded work on the land for back-breaking poorly rewarded work in the mills and factories of the rapidly transformed England. This created opportunity, but also massive challenge. Living lives of unimaginable squalor, for the first time free from the constraints of family, village and church life, the experience of people in the newly industrialised cities of the UK has been described in vivid and horrific details by George Gissing, etc. What we would now call a moral panic gripped the nation, and commentators, authors and politicians all weighed in – in a way that is all too familiar for those of us who have lived through similar panics. ‘Something must be done’ was the cry.

As ever, observing the actions and not the words pays dividends.

This was the time of the biggest explosion of ‘social capital’ we have probably ever seen in response to this unprecedented upheaval. Churches and chapels sprang up in the heart of the newly populated cities. Girls and Boys Clubs, friendly societies and working men’s clubs were formed. Mutual aid and trade unions began. The pioneering charities like Barnardo’s, the hospital funds and the prison reformers. The new profession of housing management, led by women, created the cornerstones of our current housing association movement and laid the foundations for the council housing of which we should all be so proud. Social work developed as a profession. Workers’ education institutes, reading rooms and political discussion sprang up in the newly crowded, and deeply divided, cities.

Of course this activity contained within it both what is good and what is bad about social capital. Of course some of it was patronising and ill thought through. We read about Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House and cringe. We look at the advice given by the Charities Organisations Society and from our comparatively privileged position allow ourselves a smug grimace. Of course dreadful things were done in the name of social capital. Children sent to Australia, horrific abuse took place in the laundries of Belfast, extortionate rents were undoubtedly charged for squalid housing, and predatory lending has a long history. But we also see the great strengths of self-organisation and mutual support, the creation of new institutions for different times. The development of networks of support, and the engagement of those with privilege in genuinely, if occasionally misguidedly, seeking to improve lives for their fellow citizens.

As Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation you would not expect me to get this far without talking about the enlightened progressive capitalists of this period and the ways in which Rowntree, Cadbury, Titus Salt and others, worked, making a lot of money, for sure, but also developing approaches to employment practice that still resonate today. Taking responsibility for their workforces and housing people who would otherwise live in the slums of York, Birmingham and Bradford in beautiful, well designed and green environments.

And of course the great civic leaders who built our city halls, improved public health, built and managed vital housing, were born from just this energetic social capital, connecting back through the ballot box to the needs of populations which were changing, and facing new and entirely different problems.

Social capital takes many forms and is never an unequivocal good. But the Industrial Revolution witnessed the way in which the power of financial capital, the demands of human capital combined to generate enormous social capital which still shapes the social architecture and engineering of our big cities today.

Some of the pre-conditions that we now possess would have been beyond the imagination of our nineteenth century predecessors.

First we have the people. Our ageing population is so often described as a ‘burden’. In the calculation of social capital the fact that we will all live longer, hopefully healthier lives, brings wisdom, knowledge and capability to addressing some of our most pressing social problems. Our much more diverse, much better educated population also contains the skills and the abilities to foster real reciprocal, creative and innovative social capital.

And secondly we have the technology. The digital revolution has changed and continues to change so much of what we do, as well as how we do it. Open data, generously shared, is a vital tool for the development of the social networks and connections that create capital. Communication, at the press of a key, enables communities of interest to be formed, enfranchises those without a voice and enables far more of us to engage in a genuinely pluralist debate. Of course there is a darker side – the internet can reinforce loneliness, generate hate and exclude as much as it can enable. But the optimism and drive that transformed this city can harness the power of digital to enable genuine, productive engagement.

In discussing social change we often end up talking about data, its power, and its resilience. We believe as technocrats that clean, well marshalled data can solve everything. But the real data that powers social capital is often messy. It involves a close and detailed understanding of the web of relationships that keeps any neighbourhood alive. We know that it is vitally important for the police and security services to understand in fine detail the operation of community networks and relationships. We accept that the big commercial service providers know more about us than our closest family. And so those of us concerned with the fostering of social capital need to harness just this data to understand and support the very real networks of mutual support that make this city tick, and make survival possible.

Knowledge – real, informed, current knowledge – is vital to the development of social capital. Interventions that are rooted in how people really live – the ethnography of neighbourhoods – are part of the modern skill set. Social capital comes from within. Top down announcements of new ways of engaging lack this fine grained knowledge, will be based on anecdote, generalisation and stereotype and have the capacity to destroy real and important social capital.

Social capital today

Today, we face a revolution as profound as anything the nineteenth century pioneers had to contend with. We live in a globalised world in which the pace of change, and the sheer volatility of it all, sometimes simply feels too much. A world in which a decision in Mumbai can change the lives of communities in the West Country overnight. A world in which it is sometimes easier to feel connected to events in the Kashmir than the events in your own neighbourhood. A world in which work is becoming faster, more demanding, and frequently much less secure. A world in which housing is a fragile asset, not a platform on which to build a secure life. A world in which mass movements of people can both enrich and strengthen, but can too often be experienced as threat and division. A world in which the distance between generations can seem overwhelming.

In this world there is more need than ever before for the conscious fostering of social capital. For our cities to thrive and prosper, we need the sort of social capital that enabled people to survive seismic social change in the last centuries.

But we cannot replicate what went before. Modern social capital will need to look and feel different, but it will have all the same qualities of human warmth and reciprocity that we need to live truly prosperous lives in cities.

Modern social capital will need to foster skills for living as well as for working. It will enable and encourage the small acts of kindness that enable us all to survive. But it will also connect people across generations, and across faiths and nationalities. It will be built on the power of relationships, not on transactions.

It will almost certainly be made up more of networks than of organisations. The architecture of the 19th century was mirrored in the settlements and big institutions of that era. A more adaptive and digitally informed social capital may look more like a set of movements than an institution.

It will be more democratic, providing a platform for the dispossessed as much as tending to their needs. It will not be afraid of anger and of division – because social capital is messy, just like social change.

It will bring together surprising friends – cultural organisations, with those who feel furthest away from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It will cross boundaries, finding support in the corner shop as much as in the funded voluntary organisation. It will not look for permission, but instead will make demands.

But this active, new energetic social capital will be the reason that cities like Birmingham flourish into the next century. It will bring resilience and capability. It will enable innovation and sustainable growth. And it will make sure that our cities are places where people want to live, not dread destinations into which they are forced.

But without a concerted, conscious effort to build inclusive growth, there is a risk that the poorest people and places will be left behind. Our newly developing prosperity risks benefitting the better off at the expense of the poorest people and places. It risks creating cities which are at their heart unsafe and unsustainable because they contain within them places where people are dispossessed, insecure and overlooked. These divided cities will never contribute to a new prosperity.

That is why the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has committed so heavily to understanding both through research and through practice, what good growth can look like in cities. In the Leeds City Region we are working in partnership with local authorities, business and the anchor institutions to identify the steps that can be taken to make that growth truly inclusive. But we are also working with the Young Foundation to understand the details of what is happening in neighbourhoods. Through our support and engagement with the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission we are also doing what we can to make sure that the voices and experience of people experiencing poverty are heard clearly and effectively in the places where decisions are made. And city leaders can use their powers to create a rebalanced economy in which there are far greater opportunities for the people and places previously left behind. The test of city leadership will not be judged only in improved gross value added. It will also be in the extent to which damaging poverty and isolation are conquered.

It is only by this conscious commitment to building social capital in cities that we will see the emergence of a city economy fit for all our citizens in the 21st century.

A recipe for social change

In April 2014 as Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Julia gave a lecture at York St. John University where she outlined her take on the ingredients needed to bring about social change.

JRF was established over one hundred years ago in the city of York, a city that has more claim than many to be the kitchen of social change in the UK. The first place in Europe where mentally ill women were held without manacles through the visionary work of William Tuke at the Retreat. The site of one of the first garden villages in New Earswick, the prototype of so much suburban housing in the UK. And the first place where people living in poverty were counted, measured and studied in the ground breaking, influential reports by Joseph, and later Seebohm Rowntree. And now, York aspires to be a Living Wage City, working with employers, voluntary organisations and the local press to ‘stamp out poverty’. It aspires to be a model for a dementia friendly city, one in which all the people of the city, and their visitors, can feel safe, welcomed and able to lead good lives with dementia.

In assessing that legacy of pioneering architecture, influential and challenging research, we witness a tireless journey in pursuit of social justice. But we also witness centuries of social change, and in this lecture tonight I want to try and understand what makes social change happen. What are the ingredients and processes in the recipe? Because social change does happen. Sometimes dramatically and visibly, and more frequently through the slow accretion of rights, the shifting attitudes, the small
adjustments, which mean we suddenly look round and recall. The past was a different country. They did things differently there.

You do not need to be a starry eyed subscriber to the Whig theory of History, or indeed a Blairite humming “things can only get better”, to spot social change. In the lifetime of the JRF – since 1904 – we have seen:

  • The emancipation of women, our right to vote, and our entry into the workforce in
    large numbers;
  • The rising of the school leaving age, and the growth of literacy and numeracy;
  • Health gains that could never previously be imagined;
  • The development of personal and sexual freedom – changing the shape of family
    life, sexual identity and our definition of marriage;
  • A break in the historic link between squalor and poverty – for the last 30 years it has been possible for even the very poorest people to live in decent homes.

And in terms of behaviour and norms we readily accept that we can no longer smoke where we wish, that driving when drunk is socially unacceptable, that church going is no longer the norm and that automatic deference in response to age or class is not required.

Each of these changes, and a host of others, have in their wake brought other changes, some more positive and others more negative, but taken together they signify a very different society from the one that Joseph Rowntree would have seen as he strolled along Bootham.

Not one of these changes – and all the many others – would have been possible without conflict, without the use of power. Sometimes the mobilisation of the powerless, sometimes the assertion of rights by an otherwise marginalised and silenced minority.

The progress of social change owes a huge amount to movements – and it challenges and takes on vested interests, frequently with apparently overwhelming power. This much is, in a sense, self-evident and the celebration of these movements, the history written by the challengers, is a vitally important part of understanding social progress. Now before I go further I need to acknowledge that there is a vast body of theoretical thinking and writing on the question of social change, the nature and validation of such change, the methodology that is used and the calibration of effect. I don’t intend to litter this lecture with theoretical constructs, or reference the extraordinary, powerful and rigorous work by both academics and activists. Instead I want to draw some simple themes from this body of research, and associate it with examples that will, I think, be familiar to people here today. There are plenty of powerful analyses of the nature of social change movements, just as there is a compelling body of evidence about how government is influenced.

Philanthropy then, philanthropy now

A lecture given at Gresham Collage on 29 March 2012.

This lecture outlines the challenges of modern-day society and how they affect a charity’s ability to deliver its purpose, and discusses how a ‘Good Society’ could be built through the individual, community, market and state.

Read the whole lecture (PDF)

The five Ss in Governance

My interest in governance is as a governor, advisor, author, consultant and chair – and now as a CEO. And my interest also lies in the charity sector, because I think that is where the challenge of governance is most demanding, and the rewards are greatest.

But at a time when the criticisms of governance have never been greater, and the fashionable world-weary pose is to talk about governance as a problem, I want to start with the huge strengths that I think a strong board brings to any organisation.

Read the full article (first published on gettingonboard.org)