Big ambitions in UK Civil Society Strategy

Social enterprise leaders have broadly welcomed the ‘big ambition’ and ‘great intentions’ in the UK Government’s newly published Civil Society Strategy.

New models of grantmaking, a review of tax relief for impact investment, a possible extension of the Social Value Act and a new forum to co-ordinate government relations are some of the headlines in the document, published this week.

A new responsible business leadership group will also be set up to consider how business can be encouraged to do more to support society.

The blue, 123-page document with a photo collage of happy people from diverse communities on the front page comes with the tagline “building a future that works for everyone”.

It describes charities and social enterprises – “the social sector” – as “the core of civil society”. 

Introducing the document, Secretary of State Jeremy Wright and Civil Society Minister Tracy Crouch say that the strategy was “a response to the opportunity of the moment, when new technologies and ways of working suggest extraordinary new possibilities – as well as threats – for the way we live and work”.

They continued: “To meet the opportunities and threats of the future a new approach is needed that gives greater freedom and responsibility to our communities. We believe that civil society is central to this new approach.”

The strategy recognises the “strong demand” from the social enterprise sector for “a simpler relationship with the government”.

It also says the government is “determined that charities and social enterprises should be fully confident in their right to speak in public debates and to have a strong role in shaping policy and speaking up on behalf of those they support”.

On social investment, it says the government has committed to reviewing Social Investment Tax Relief in 2019. “Reducing restrictions on the size and type of projects which can claim Social Investment Tax Relief could accelerate communities taking ownership of important community assets and expand the use of small scale finance for community energy projects,” the document says. “In these areas Social Investment Tax Relief could play a bigger role in helping social sector organisations to be more financially resilient.”

Alastair Wilson, chief executive of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, said: “We’re excited that the government is exploring new models of finance to support enterprise development – especially that it will be reviving grant-making through ‘Grants 2.0’. We believe there is a fantastic opportunity to support social organisations increasing their earned income with Match Trading grants, the new grant-funding model that directly incentivises trading, developed by School for Social Entrepreneurs.”

Wilson said there were “some great intentions in this strategy to support social enterprise”. He added: “Overall, the direction of travel mapped out in the strategy feels encouraging for social entrepreneurs and social-sector leaders. There are some notable initiatives to be welcomed. Now the government needs to work closely with our sector to understand how best to put these ideas into practice, so that together we can reach the organisations and communities most in need of support.”

Chris White, Author of the Social Value Act and a board member of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), commented: “I hope that this strategy will start a new chapter in the evolution of the Social Value Act. However, we need better data about its current implementation across the public sector.”   

Peter Holbrook, SEUK's CEO, said the strategy had “big ambition”, but added: “We are not going to see change without reforming the private sector. We often focus on the public sector, but the vast majority of activity in our society takes place outside it. We need businesses to be aligned our values as a society and which protect the planet.”

Read Peter Holbrook’s opinion piece here.

Mark Norbury, CEO of UnLtd, said: “The government’s Civil Society Strategy rightly recognises the contributions and potential of social purpose organisations. It chimes with our experience of enterprising people having solutions to many of the complex challenges we face as a nation.

 “We welcome the Strategy’s announcement that DCMS will account for social value when procuring major contracts, but we want to see the rest of Whitehall follow suit without delay. It is only right to expect the whole of Government to procure in line with its own legislation, which gained Royal Assent over six years ago.”

Norbury said he would liked to have seen more support for initiatives which put social entrepreneurs, rather than investors and intermediaries, “right at the heart of social investment”.

Read Mark Norbury’s opinion piece here.