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Why make grants?

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the purpose of grant making, the role of endowed foundations and the relationship between what goes on in broader civil society and the organisations that support and fuel it. There have been critiques from the USA – from Anand Giridharadas   arguing that philanthropy is another tool for the powerful rich, from Edgar Villanueva  describing the damaging colonial underbelly of philanthropy, and from Robert Reich  questioning the impact of philanthropy on our democracy. Each of these critiques has been discussed in the UK, and while the criticisms don’t land as powerfully as they do in the USA, there has inevitably been some greater sense of self-reflection in the UK. But there would have been reflection anyway – people running foundations as staff or as trustees are reflective people, liable to consider what their place is in the world and what difference they can make. And as they survey our deeply divided society, the sense of desolation in so many parts of the UK, and the democratic crisis we face, it would be odd indeed if they were not thinking about how they can do what they do even better.

Over fifteen years  ago in the Grant Making Tango  I argued that anyone wanting to make a grant needed to decide if the purpose of the grant was to change  the world, build an organisation, or keep good stuff going. Not to know, I argued, risked disappointment at best, and massive waste at worst. Too many funders were paying for projects, and then being disappointed that the organisation wasn’t stronger and more effective. Or they were paying to strengthen organisations, and surprised that they hadn’t achieved the large-scale systems change that was then desired.

But preparing for another discussion this week about the role and purpose of foundations – those wonderfully privileged endowed organisations, withe independence hard wired, and the choice to set their own course – I thought rather differently about what foundations can do in these, very much more troubled and troubling times.

  • They can be stabilisers and stewards– supporting important organisations and groups in times of massive turbulence. They can protect knowledge, support the institutions and organisations with deep roots in communities and in our world. Just as  the medieval monasteries protected the illuminated manuscripts during the years of plague – so too we have organisations that need security and stability through troubled times.
  • They can be disrupters and agitators, making change happen, supporting the new and the challenging, avoiding the status quo, recognising the need for new and different ways of doing things. They can take risks, challenge the existing order, support the challengers against the incumbents.
  • They can be the reliable suppliers of money, support and help– keeping good things going, working with humility to support that which works and is good, valuing the deep connections that exist within civil society, and making sure that organisations across the country are able to thrive.

All three of these sets of purpose seem to me to be worthwhile, important and timely. Each of them has massive value at this difficult time in our country’s history. Each of them can be pursued by foundations – but I’m not really sure that anyone foundation can do all three. If I’m right there are choices to be made – and in difficult times, foundations know they need to make choices. That will help them – perhaps even more importantly it will help the bodies that rely on them to know what  it is that the grant maker wants to do.

 

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The Politics of Belonging – the Freedom to Belong

There’s a new report out today from Onward, the organisation which describes itself as a ‘new future-facing and campaigning thinktank with a mission to build a powerful ideas factory for centre-right thinkers and leaders.’ With the catchy (but long) hashtag #PoliticsofBelonging, the report  The Politics of Belonging, is a data rich survey of attitudes and emotions how we live today. As I have argued that emotions are the blind spot in public policy  I fell on it with enthusiasm.

There’s lots to agree with in the findings. They chime precisely with what we heard in Civil Society Futures.In our own discussions with local people from different parts of the UK, they told us they had little control over their lives.  They felt distant  from others in their communities, and believed that their country was increasingly divided.

People also told us they felt they had not benefited from modernisation and globalisation, and that those who had, lived far away. People felt their own situation was deeply and worryingly precarious. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in their own work on modern poverty, found very similar responses about the extreme insecurity experienced by so many people.

Finally, all of this research shows that, above all, people really want to feel that they belong. This is as true of newly arrived Syrian refugees as it is for people with learning disabilities or those who have lived in a neighbourhood housing estate. All of them feel excluded and locked out of what society can offer.

They are not wrong in feeling like this. We are a deeply divided society, where the gains of modernity have certainly not been fairly distributed. There is huge tension between generations. Younger people feel angry that the benefits experienced by their parents and grand-parents are not available to them. And in turn the older generation fear the insecurity and uncertainty facing their children.

But in our Inquiry we also found hope and energy alongside the despair and anger. In every community we visited we saw people making their own solutions, supporting their neighbours, building bridges, creating a sense of belonging. Academics call it associational life – for many of the people we met ‘it’s just what you do’. From choirs to allotment societies and support circles; from residents’ associations to young people setting up their own enterprises, from Park Run to Refuges at Home, there were many examples of people contributing to the communities to which they belonged.

Churches and mosques, community run swimming pools, long established charities, and new movements and pressure groups all confirmed to us that people have a desperate, visceral human need to belong and will go to huge efforts to do so. From rural villages to inner city estates, across all ages, people demonstrated great loyalty and identification with place.  Our report celebrates the ability that civil society, in all its forms, has to bring people together.

But there was another element unearthed by our research. We found a strong desire for freedom and independence. People want the opportunity to build their own communities, in ways that work for them. They recognise that they know more about their ‘place’ than the chief executive in the town hall, let alone the man in Whitehall. We met people who wanted to devise solutions for their own problems, but prevented from doing so either by regulations, or more frequently the absence of even the smallest dollop of funding to help them get going. Many grassroots groups and organisations told us that their freedom to innovate, to engage, to really help instigate change, were being constrained by those holding power.

Civil society is about change as much as it is about conservation, and we also heard from groups actively pursuing the freedom that they strongly believe they need. The freedom from worry and crippling anxiety for parents with children addicted to drugs and alcohol. The freedom to manage their own housing estates, the freedom to worship and express their faith and their own sense of belonging.

We noted that for most people, and for men in particular, until about 15 years ago, their workplace was their strongest and most profound place of affiliation and belonging. Time and time again we were told that the changing labour market – not just the ‘gig economy’ but also the ways in which companies are rapidly forming and re-forming – meant that work provided less of a focus for belonging. Young people felt that their insecure housing meant they were unable to form the deep human connections that are so important to us all.

So, the diagnosis in Politics of Belonging held few surprises for me. Nor did some of the analysis about how people feel that they and the people and places they love benefit little from a fast-changing world which makes them uncomfortable and resentful.

Inequality and division has a tendency to have that effect.

But it was with  the final words of the report that I part company with the authors. In advice to political campaigners, (and this report speaks directly to the Conservative Party it concludes:

‘reject the freedom fighters and pursue the politics of belonging’.

A whole hearted embrace of belonging doesn’t contradict a desire for freedom and autonomy, in fact it can only enhance it. There’s only a contradiction if what we’re really talking about here is power.  I think it is. When people really belong – to a trades union, charity, community group or a campaign like Extinction Rebellion – they feel a tremendous sense of power. They also have the power to bridge across divides – divisions on grounds or race, ethnicity, faith divide and destroy. That’s why belonging matters. It allows people to set their own course. And with that power comes freedom and autonomy. To separate the two runs contrary to our most profound human impulses.

Any party that wants to achieve power has to address people’s deep sense of insecurity. It has to recognise the vital importance of belonging. And it has to recognise that it is only by strong, shared action – across all the divides that currently afflict us – that we will really achieve the true social change that is so important for our deeply uncertain future. Its only through a renewed and re energised civil societythat we’ll be able to really assert the importance of belonging, and the true value of our own very precious freedoms.

That will mean asking some deeply uncomfortable questions about who holds power, and how they use it. And it will mean recognising that we need a fundamental shift of power. That’s how the real Politics of Belonging works. It allows us to express solidarity with those who are excluded. It allows us to start to mend our dented democracy. It allows us to work together to stitch the frayed social fabric. It makes it possible for us to start making the essential, and increasingly urgent changes demanded by the climate emergency.

That’s what civil society does at is best, and that’s why I don’t think there is a contradiction between demanding freedom, craving belonging, and resisting insecurity.

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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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Kindness and public policy. Really?

There are words that are rarely used in public policy, or if they are used they come with an accompanying grimace. Kindness. Loneliness. Love. Relationships. And there are other words that trip off the tongue with so much more ease. Outcomes. Frameworks. GVA. Infrastructure development. Workforce Planning. I am  starting a Fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust to use just these tricky, dangerous words, and in doing so I’m building on hugely important work already done by Jospeh Rowntree Foundation, Carnegie UK Trust, and so very many others.

Because the one thing we know both from deep academic  research, and from our own experience, is that it is kindness, love, relationships that make life worth living. We know that the outcomes for people in hospital are so much better if they are physically touched – and not just for the insertion of needles and tubes. We know that communities and neighbourhoods are only really revived and reinvigorated because of the active engagement, and frequently the furious anger, of people who live there. We know that  the biggest challenge facing people who need social care can often be the profound sense of loss and grief they feel. We know that for young people, their first experience of deep personal relationships  with people who are unrelated to them, have a  profound and non- negotiable impact on the rest of their lives.

And yet we continue to build housing developments that minimise the possibility of human inter-action, and kindness. We invest more in mapping the economic flows and investment returns than we do in noticing who talks to people in the local shop, and what role  the local taxi driver is already playing in reducing demand on the social care budget. We sign up – for very good reason – to regulatory frameworks that minimise risk by reducing the opportunity for human inter-action. We adopt – for very good reason – professional codes and protocols  that minimise discretion and so can  inhibit human relationships . We rely on front line staff who are frequently treated abysmally to provide just the sort of kindness and generosity that we too often fail to model. With grateful thanks to @CatherineB201 who drew this to my attention we also know, if we didn’t already, that the ways in which people relate to each other have a direct effect on those precious, vital outcomes.

We know that all social change comes from the relationship between people,  and yet we are nervous about talking about it. This isn’t because people are nasty. It isn’t because we don’t know this stuff.  It is not because planners, regulators, auditors and professionals are malevolent. It’s because talking about kindness, and talking about human behaviour is scary, and  requires us to think more deeply about motivation, and  behaviour, about friendship and love, and the things that make life worth living. To do so requires courage and focus, but a more humanised state is necessary if we are going to meet any of the huge challenges facing us. Dorothy Elmhirst, the founder of Dartington Hall Trust  where I am privileged to be a trustee, wanted us to try to live a ‘many-sided life’. The challenge for those of us engaged in public policy is to recognise that in our modern world the many-sided life involves us in recognising the human – and that can be messy and uncomfortable and challenging.  But we need to put aside the grimace. Stop treating this as extra, and recognise that how we treat each other is at the core of all public policy. Always and everywhere.

 

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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.