UnLtd: Civil society should be braver, more inclusive and more accountable

More diverse leadership, affordable capital and a new vision of wealth - these are just some of the ways that civil society should change, thinks UnLtd's CEO Mark Norbury. And these have been outlined in UnLtd's submission to the government's consultation on the future of civil society, which closed yesterday.

The future, indeed the present, needs civil society to be much braver, more inclusive and more accountable. 

That’s what we believe and what our social entrepreneurs are telling us. We listened to them in two sessions held with Social Enterprise UK and School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bradford and London. The government’s consultation on the future of civil society is an opportunity for us to share how we do that. 

We know social entrepreneurs have something special to offer. This is beautifully illustrated by a recent business lunch where two of the UK’s leading wealth managers took copious notes on changing their investment and procurement practices based on meeting Mona of Harry Specters, Cemal of Change Please, two of UnLtd’s award winners. 

In a better future, a diverse community of leaders will be in charge – folks who have not had the traditional trappings of power and privilege

And yet we have not made the difference and built the understanding and trust we need to. Our society is still riddled with schism, inequality, abuse of power and funds – whether evidenced by Brexit, Windrush, or, closer to the sector, safeguarding or fundraising scandals. We’ve just not been good enough or gone far enough. That is as true of UnLtd, the organisation I love and am proud to lead, as it is of any other part of the social economy. 

We need to be bolder and imagine a better future. 

In this future, a diverse community of leaders will be in charge – folks who have not had the traditional trappings of power and privilege. Models of shared ownership, mission-locked fast-growth businesses, affordable and patient capital will be commonplace. It will be odd to consider wealth in monetary terms – connectedness, fairness, happiness will be woven in to our calculus and instruments on value. And we will consider what each of us can bring, not what we cannot (the deficit model is such a bizarre notion – how did it get so entrenched in public and social life?). 

I do not know they ways we will bring this future about, but I do know that in preparing ourselves, foundations like UnLtd need to change dramatically. We need to ask different questions of ourselves – particularly whether, and how, we have used all of our assets (capital as well as revenue) to create a world where enterprising people are transforming our society for good. We need to do so well that we effectively put ourselves out of business. 

This work can’t be done alone and here’s how we think government can help, reflected in our response to the Future of Civil Society Consultation which we submitted yesterday. 

1. Help remove barriers that prevent social entrepreneurs from scaling up 

The social economy has made great strides in the last 20 years – whether it’s the Living Wage, the reach of Belu Water and Divine Chocolate, the fact that Oomph! Wellness now makes a million older people’s lives better (and longer). Social Enterprise UK’s Buy Social Corporate Challenge, the creation of Big Society Capital and dramatic increase in impact investing, or the tens of thousands of citizens now engaging in social entrepreneurship. All of these point to a growing and vibrant sector. 

But most social entrepreneurs face considerable barriers when it comes to growth. They could be helped by: 

  • Making the most out of opportunities for public sector procurement, including strengthening the Social Value Act. 
  • Incentivising/providing affordable patient capital alongside in-depth support for high impact, high growth social ventures. 
  • Establish social challenge-focused partnerships between government, business and civil society. 

2. Put power in the hands of communities 

All places and communities are rich in untapped potential and opportunity. We have found that social entrepreneurs working in their local community are powerful drivers of change, whether in Dudley or Morecambe. 

We believe that these local people hold the key to regeneration and vitality of their places and communities. This cannot be imported or imposed. 

The government should promote community or shared ownership and participatory approaches in place-based social change by encouraging local government and Local Economic Partnerships to engage with Locality, Co-ops UK and UnLtd’s Resilient Communities work with The Local Trust. This will grow local markets while fostering the connective tissue that is civil society. 

3. Let’s make power and resources accountable in civil society organisations 

We know the energy, ideas, and talent in social entrepreneurs, organisations and communities. Yet too often civil society is dominated by large foundations and charities, rather than the people they serve. A shift in democratic accountability and ownership is vital to business, government, civil society and citizens – and we should be leading the way, as the sector has since co-ops first began. 

As an organisation UnLtd has backed 16,500 social entrepreneurs and ventures with funding and support. But decisions on who we back are made by a small group of (admittedly wonderful) volunteers and staff. 

Let’s put our social entrepreneurs in charge. We’ve begun to do this in partnership with communities and organisations in Birmingham and Bristol in our Leaders with Lived Experience work with The Social Innovation Partnership, funded by the Big Lottery Fund. 

We will know more in the coming months and will use the learning and insight from our social entrepreneurs to challenge and transform how we work. And we need to sustain a set up that enables us to be truly accountable to those we serve – social entrepreneurs and their beneficiaries. 

4. Let’s change the system 

UnLtd is great at supporting social entrepreneurs, but it can get better. One of the ways we can do this is by focusing on a specific social challenge, such as access to employment for disabled people, and harnessing the energy and potential of a group of social entrepreneurs to address different facets of that challenge. 

That sounds pretty exciting…but how much better to partner with Scope, a leading disability charity, the UK Department of Work and Pensions, Kaleidoscope Investments (who back entrepreneurs with disabilities), and major employers such as Accenture and Unilever? 

And if we do that, it cannot be UnLtd’s ambition which defines what happens. It cannot be any one of our ambitions. It has to be the ambition of disabled people who we collectively serve, figuring out how we each bring our people, skills, knowledge and funds to bear in service of something much bigger than ourselves. 

We need to do much more of brave, inclusive, accountable systems work, and so does business and government. And if it’s going to work (it’s bloody complex and difficult after all…), we will need to recognise and value what we each bring. The best way to do this is to have the citizens we all serve in charge – in terms of ownership, design, governance and delivery. It’s their energy, skills and talent which are the future of civil society. 

Header image: UnLtd's Leaders with Lived Experience dinner participants