An initial response to the Law Family Commission on Civil Society

By Hetan Shah, Chief Executive, The British Academy

The Commission on Civil Society, published today by Pro Bono Economics, is an important and timely report. It is right that to respond to the challenges that we face as a society (and you don’t need me to remind you of all of those) we need Government, business and civil society all pulling together. It is also right that the social sector is the least understood, the most overlooked and nevertheless vital to our communities. This piece provides some brief reflections on some of the main recommendations in the report.

Organisational capability

Everyone who has worked in the charity sector will know that organisational capacity is a problem. The Commission makes a series of helpful recommendations to build better support structures and knowledge of ‘what works’. We must learn, however, from what happened to similar initiatives in the past which have come and gone and strengthen the relatively weak capacity of umbrella bodies in the sector. Most importantly, none of these supply side initiatives will stick when civil society organisations themselves are so stretched. In other words, recommendations around funding and policy support elsewhere in the report are fundamental for everything else.


The next set of recommendations are about data. There is a pitfall to avoid in the implementation here. We must avoid asking small civil society organisations to make sense of a lot of data themselves as they do not have the capacity or skills. Funders need to stop giving them £5k ‘to do an evaluation of the project’. Evaluation and other forms of research are hard and require investment in skilled researchers to ensure findings are robust. Rather than devolve this pressure to small civil society organisations, bigger bodies (Government, local authorities, funders) should commission high quality research to help inform the sector – e.g. what is the need in the area they are working in, or large scale evaluations of what practices are effective. And bodies such as the Office for National Statistics should gather the data ‘about’ the sector so that it feeds into the national picture.


The recommendations around building organisational capability lead with the need for greater core and longer term funding. Every charity leader has had this at the top of their wishlist for years, but change from trusts and foundations has been slow. As a sector – whilst well meaning – they are rarely subject to external pressures or accountability – especially family foundations or those set up by corporates or high net worth individuals. Whilst there is a strength here in maintaining independence, they are also not necessarily as responsive to the needs of civil society as they might be. The Association for Charitable Foundations is doing sterling work in seeking to help trusts and foundations become more reflective and to learn from best practice. Better grant making will lead to stronger charities.


A common error is to say that charities should become more like businesses. The Commission is to be congratulated for turning this on its head and recognising that business has a lot to learn from charities. The British Academy’s work on the Future of the Corporation has shown that the narrow focus on maximisation of shareholder value is a relatively recent phenomenon in the last 50 years, and that taking a longer view, profit and purpose have always co-existed in corporate structures over the last two thousand years. Civil society leaders have always worked to optimise social outcomes alongside the bottom line and have much experience to share with business leaders who are now grappling with these questions.


The next set of recommendations make the argument for policymakers to take civil society more seriously. These need to be seen in the context of policy history: the New Labour years emphasised charities as partners in service delivery but this was often a relatively technocratic and contractual lens. This was followed by the ‘Big Society’ narrative of the Cameron years which could have been groundbreaking but was accompanied by austerity and hence ultimately understood as volunteers filling the gaps left where state provision had been withdrawn. Since then civil society has had relatively weak prominence within Whitehall. It’s unquestionable that policymakers should think more about how to support civil society, but equally they need to understand how civil society is essential in helping them fulfil their aims.

One area not covered in the report is how the so called ‘culture wars’ and legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 have created an atmosphere which discourages charities from advocacy and campaigning work. The social sector is not just here to deliver the ambitions of Government, but also sometimes to challenge them. It is a sign of a healthy society to have a policy environment that enables such challenge but in recent years we have seen an erosion of this.


The final recommendations mark the importance of parts of the social sector in place-based work. There are many instances of great collaboration between government and civil society at the local level, but given funding constraints, local government also increasingly lacks capacity and therefore is not always able to take a strategic approach. The British Academy has just published a report on the value and importance of social infrastructure. These are places and spaces which bring diverse communities together – both in person and online. Civil society and social infrastructure might be seen as two of the key factors that enable communities to be supported and thrive.

Where now?

The Civil Society Commission helpfully brings together an agenda to develop the role of civil society. The analysis is up to date, and yet many of these themes have been discussed before by the sector. How can we ensure a step change this time? A General Election must occur in the next couple of years. Let’s use the publication of the Civil Society Commission as a hook to talk to all political parties about the importance of the social sector in achieving a healthier, more prosperous and secure society, and the support they need to fully unlock their role.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’