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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.

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