The Future of Civil Society

By Dan Corry, Chief Executive, New Philanthropy CapitalSo, the civil society strategy has come and gone. Is there some good stuff in there? Yes. Is it going to serve as a radical new blueprint for the future shape and direction of civil society? Probably not – though it does reflect some rising trends around place and user involvement. While it was keenly anticipated in some quarters, nobody really expected the government to give us a strategy to face a world that sometimes seems to be rapidly increasing in complexity and conflict.

But face it we must. The future of civil society is going to come down to our collective ability to answer some very big questions over the coming years. I’m going to set out one of those questions and some of our potential answers below, but before I do I must say, I’m an optimist – I think we can do this. But it will be hard, and we’re going to have to shake ourselves out of our comfort zones.

Divided societies

What has civil society got to do with hateful speech on social media? What’s it got to do with Brexit or anti-Semitism? Or even Trump? Well so far, not very much. Most civil society organisations are nervous about issues that are perceived as contentious for good reason. Apart from the requirements of charity law to remain non-party political, they are worried about the reaction of their funders, be they the public, trusts, philanthropists, government or even investors, to involvement in ‘difficult’ or ‘controversial’ work.

But, more than the specifics of any individual issue, the rapid way so many issues seem to be creating deep and vitriolic division is one of the challenges of our time. The mechanics of how this works are only now beginning to be understood.

We know it involves social media. But it’s also about the way our economy has evolved, about an unhappiness with the consequences of decades of globalisation and of technological development, and a feeling that in a lot of ways the outcomes are deeply unfair. Crudely put, while some have gained, especially in thriving metropolitan areas, many have languished. Doing something about this is a huge task, but it’s a vital one and it can’t all be left to a private sector that has other concerns and a government currently lost in the details of Brexit negotiations.

Whatever the channel, and despite recent scandals, charities are still some of the most trusted organisations in the country. Where debate has become polarised and toxic, the sector can and should be a trusted broker. The civil society strategy didn’t roll back the lobbying act, but charities should not be cowed by it and in fact should be thinking about all the other ways they can talk to and convene people. And while much of the discussion is about charities, community businesses and social enterprises often occupy a uniquely influential position in a place where people can meet and so should be thinking what they can do as well.  

Working to make a place

We know that some communities are particularly affected by this division, often with a preponderance of people who are vulnerable in one way or another. The traditional social sector has great experience working with these kinds of people but is it doing enough, online and offline, to find and support them? Some places are, and more are in danger of becoming, very thin on ‘social capital’. Without social capital to bind people into communities they become far more vulnerable to extreme views, suspicious of their fellow citizens and our shared problem grows deeper. All kinds of social sector organisations need to be thinking about this. Where are you, where do you work and are you having the most impact in the places you do?

Civil Society needs to work hard in these ‘left-behind’ places and doing so effectively is going to mean new models. We are going to need to work more closely with local government and businesses if we are to tackle the real reasons why places have the problems they do. We are going to have to get comfortable talking about money and models with people from different backgrounds if we are going to address this problem. Again, many social businesses are leading the way. Getting involved with your local LEP may be a drag – but it may also be necessary.

I’m optimistic about the future of civil society but we shouldn’t allow our individual causes to blind us to the new, complicated, plights that are affecting society. Without working on them, we will find everything gets worse.

Dan Corry will be speaking as part of NPC Ignites, the conference which challenges and inspires the social sector, on 10th October.