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Time to get serious about civil society

The end of a decade is always a time to take stock, but in the UK just now it represents so much more. A General Election outcome, more dramatic than most had predicted, has created some certainty about the way ahead, and for civil society some greater certainty about what we need to do next.

We argued when we launched the final report of Civil Society Futures over a year ago, that we urgently needed a renewed reenergised civil society to meet the challenges ahead. Well those challenges have now only got clearer and sharper.

This second decade of the century is going to be both turbulent, and fast paced. Three things we know we will face
• A constitutional crisis that for all the constituent part of the UK will involve change, attention to the national story that we tell ourselves, and the weaving of a new narrative, along with new structures and accountabilities. And perhaps for England even more than the other nations, an urgent need to develop a new view of nationhood.
• Economic volatility as we settle into new and differently negotiated settlements, and find ourselves more subject perhaps than ever before to global flows of capital. There may well be some sunny economic uplands in prospect, but the route to them will be bumpy and volatile. We know the deep and, lasting damage done in the past by unplanned unconsidered economic transitions.
• Climate emergency having real and daily impacts. The floods of this autumn are now classed as the ‘new normal’ and we can expect throughout the decade to be responding to the desperate damage, largely to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, brought by climate change.

There’s lots we don’t know, but it’s always worth articulating what we do know.

And we do know that civil society at its best, brings a number of vital things.
It brings –

  •  The ability to shape and develop a story that helps us understand and live through change. That’s what creative and artistic organisations do at their best, working closely with communities to articulate a new purpose, and renewed sense of belonging. It’s what churches, mosques, tempLes and synagogues do, bringing people together from different backgrounds and ages to think about how they want to live. It’s how universities, those anchor institutions with deep roots in a place can help to bring people together to tell their own story.
  • We’re good in a crisis – it is community organisations and neighbourhood groups that are first on the ground in a crisis, helping to plan, bringing emergency help, supporting and galvanising the helpers.
  • Our roots are in rights and resistance. We know that major change can have intolerable costs – we know how to organise to demand better, and to seek redress when those demands fail. We know how to intervene in fragile economies, how to develop skills and capabilities, how to assert repeatedly and skilfully the damage done most particularly to those who are too easily marginalised. We know  what is happening at the margins.
  • Much of civil society is in a place – both the big asset holders like universities and housing associations, the long-established local charities and so many others. And one thing we all now know is that place really matters, not in some sentimental way, but in a powerful and defining way it shapes who we are and what we care about.

And there are things we’re not so good at.

  • We’re too divided within civil society with vanishingly low levels of trust between small and large organisations, with too little money flowing from the large well endowed bodies, and too little sense that bigger charities will support their smaller colleagues.
  • We’re bad at collaborating, still too frequently worrying about brand, looking to funders, and government for approval, rather than focusing on our purpose.
  •  We’re still too timid about saying loudly what we know and what real experience looks like. This means we can look detached and far away from the communities we serve.

To be at our best we need to change. And in Civil Society Futures we were explicit about the strategic and organisational changes needed – across the country we see evidence of all sorts of organisations, taking this challenge seriously and making real and deliberate changes.

But times have changed.

In this new and exceptionally challenging decade, we will need new forms of focused accessible help.

This is not the moment for those with assets to sit on the sidelines and lament the lack of action in civil society. A few months ago I suggested three roles for funders in our troubled times, but things have got even more serious and much more urgent. this is not just about the funders – though they have an enormous role to play – its about all of those with power within civil society – universities, housing associations, richer organisations.

So just to start with a few suggestions, how about –

  •  A designated fund, available – without judgement and endless appraisal – across civil society to enable legal challenge to injustice, to allow for review of cases, to protect those organisations threatened with gagging. A fund, and expert resource,  that is as comfortable supporting necessary judicial review as it is in meeting the costs of a small organisation penalised for speaking out.
  •  A mechanism for responding to crisis. Moving money from the big organisation to the front line at the moment of emergency, not months later. We seem to have learnt how to do this after the major national emergencies. Isn’t it time we came to do this when there is flooding in a remote village
  •  Investment in the painstaking influencing of the endless trade negotiations on which we are about to embark – influence to protect and enhance environmental, consumer and workers rights at every step of the way. The costs of the deeply technical interventions might be large, but the value could be huge.

If this is to be the decade of deep connection, we need to start connecting the resource and the power to where it is most needed.