An uncertain future: the need to better understand the potential of civil society

Dame Julia Unwin

Chair, Civil Society Futures

The Covid pandemic has emphasised many of the existing fault lines in our society. Civil society responded nimbly to the crisis, but many are left in a financially vulnerable position and without sufficient support. We must now learn from the mistakes of the past and engage in a collective action effort to improve the world we live in.

When Civil Society Futures reported in 2018, we talked about the need for a renewed and re-energised civil society.[1] We argued that there was an urgent need for civil society to flourish, and that such flourishing would require changes in the behaviour, attitudes and practices of civil society organisations and others. While our work covered a huge array of issues, four key conclusions stood out:

  • First, that place genuinely matters. People feel deeply rooted in their places, and passionately connected to their neighbourhoods. But our inquiry highlighted a shortage of shared and accessible spaces, echoing the findings of work by CIVICUS.[2]
  • Second, that the changing world of work – and in particular the erosion of the feeling of belonging that a job has traditionally offered – is impacting people’s sense of identity and affiliation. Given people’s fundamental need to belong, the implication is that we need to develop alternative means of connecting in the years to come.
  • Third, that civil society is made up not just of established institutions, but also new groups, networks and emerging – frequently challenging – movements. It’s the interplay between all these different forms that gives civil society is strength, its capacity and its power.
  • And finally, that the deep divisions that exist across our country are reflected within civil society. Divisions between towns and cities, divisions because of race and ethnicity, and divisions between the generations are all as evident within civil society as they are in wider society.

Importantly, we described the future as volatile and uncertain, predicting climate crisis, economic volatility and a great deal else. But, along with so many others, we did not predict a global pandemic with the far-reaching consequences we see today.

“There is no way that local authorities, hospitals, police forces and others would have survived without the active, engaged and rapid response of civil society organisations.”

However, nothing that has happened during the pandemic has altered my thinking in terms of the four key conclusions. Instead, cliché though it is, the pandemic has provided us with X-ray vision, merely making clearer the fault lines, weaknesses and, of course, strengths that already existed within our society.

The pandemic revealed the absolute dependence of what we still call ‘the state’ on the actions and activity of communities and civil society. There is no way that local authorities, hospitals, police forces and others would have survived without the active, engaged and rapid response of civil society organisations. Whether working to meet immediate need (delivering food, companionship and contact) or highlighting gaps and advocating for change, it was the explosion of social solidarity that characterised the first few months of lockdown.

Just as after a natural disaster, communities mobilised and helped. They did so with passion and, most importantly, with knowledge and care. Some observers may have been surprised, but those working in and round civil society knew about the depth and capability that always underpin our communities.

Churches, mosques and gurdwaras delivered food, councils for voluntary service recruited and deployed armies of volunteers (all with much more rapid effect than their statutory counterparts), and community hubs were established. And it was in the areas where interconnected networks of community organisations and local authorities were already flourishing that the real interdependence showed.

But while this all was rightly celebrated, the pandemic also uncovered uglier and more worrying truths.

It revealed, for instance, the vulnerability of the business models of all our great institutions. Just as the enormous pressures on the NHS risk overwhelming it, so too we came to recognise the perilousness of a culture of rigorous efficiency in relation to other institutions. Organisations that are only viable when working at full capacity have little to offer when times are hard and demand rockets.

Nowhere was this more evident than in relation to civil society organisations. Long challenged to widen their funding sources, trade and raise funds, too many organisations found their viability was at real risk when charity shops closed and fundraising events were forbidden. The terrible loss of income has hit all parts of civil society: major health charities have had to reduce their staffing, as has the National Trust; cathedrals across the country are contemplating very bleak futures; and local organisations, dependent on small amounts of funding, are struggling. Most particularly, newer waves of black-led charitable organisations and enterprises appear to be facing disproportionate numbers of closures. The #CharitySoWhite movement has warned for instance that 90% of such groups will not exist at the end of this crisis.[3]

The lesson needs to be learned. As we move into a period of economic volatility and potentially more frequent shocks, a business model that is so readily undermined is not a safe or reliable one. The drive to ‘sweat every pound’, keep reserves to the bare minimum and promote efficiency at all costs, has resulted in weaker, less resilient organisations, just when we needed them most.

‘The “gentleness of charities” was rightly emphasised by the Chancellor, but the economic and financial realities of the sector were not.’

Fragility has of course been experienced across many sectors. But the most striking aspect of the pandemic fallout from the perspective of civil society has been the very clear lack of political understanding – indeed, the acute shortage of political capital – evident in relation to civil society organisations.

After a period of at least three decades in which government has loudly proclaimed the central importance of the voluntary sector, the Chancellor’s thoughtful and generally well-received early intervention failed dismally to understand the needs and objectives of civil society organisations.[4] The offer of access to a furlough scheme, just at a time when workers were most needed, alongside a slow and limited response to the financial challenge suggests that, at HM Treasury at least, there was very little understanding of the potential power and contribution of civil society. And the reported emphasis on ‘getting money to the front line’ suggests that the ecology of civil society, in which there is a complex but productive net woven between a number of different-sized and differently resourced organisations, was simply not recognised.

While the charitable foundations did move rapidly to change their approach and get money to where it was needed, the appalling toll of long-established charities and new enterprises does underscore the lack of government comprehension. The “gentleness of charities” was rightly emphasised by the Chancellor, but the economic and financial realities of the sector were not.

This has continued. The landscape of the country – in England at least – has been changed by the news of charities reducing their staffing, closing operations and in so many cases closing altogether.[5] Such outcomes are deeply damaging to the whole fabric of our society, and yet they seem largely ignored other than by those most closely affected. Clearly, the political and public understanding of the role of civil society is limited. This has long term implications for how we live together and how we achieve any social and economic recovery. But the scale of the devastation caused to present and future prospects is going under the radar, with little of the policy attention that might be expected to flow towards such dramatic and drastic changes to our public life.

A future without the major charitable institutions, the essential infrastructure of civil society and the smaller network of charitable and community organisations, will be a massively impoverished one. The immediate support of this sector must be a policy priority. So too must be a long-term rethinking of the business model. Inherent fragility is no way to build the re-energised, resilient civil society on which the nation so clearly depends.

The world was rocked by the killing of George Floyd in May, prompting a powerful and challenging response across the world through the Black Lives Matter movement. Civil society was not immune. There is strong and righteous anger at the gross inequalities that exist not just in the wider world, but within civil society itself. Our Civil Society Futures inquiry identified this as a major theme. We published Let’s Talk About Race as one of three final reports,[6] and drew attention to what we saw as an overwhelmingly pressing issue for civil society as a whole. We felt rightly challenged on both the lack of black and minority ethnic leadership but, just as importantly, on the failure of civil society in the broadest sense to address issues of race and racism.

As we start to imagine how we might emerge one day from this period of mass collective trauma, economic and social upheaval, and health service backlog, we must also acknowledge that extreme volatility and jeopardy will not go away. The coming decade seems likely to be marked by other major events – economic crisis, cyber-attacks, extreme weather events and quite possibly new and difficult pathogens. In such circumstances, renewed, re-energised civil society is centrally important. It requires:

  • A much better understanding of the economics of civil society, and the inter-relationship between the ‘institutions’ and the networks, as well as between the new and emergent and the long-established. It requires a much clearer articulation of the links between the anchor institutions and the holders of capital, and their links – and responsibilities – to the rest of civil society. And it requires an emphasis on resilience and adaptability, not simply survival.
  • Immediate and urgent attention to issues of racism, diversity and inclusion, recognising the extent to which failure to address these major disparities has hampered the ability of civil society to respond to crisis and challenge.
  • A clear, unsentimental narrative about the central importance of civil society as advocate, responder, and place of belonging and identity. We must demonstrate the dependence that the state has on active, re-energised, renewed civil society. Civil society advocates, providing platforms for voices that are too readily overlooked and ensuring that attention is focused where it is needed. It responds to change, both as emergency first responders and, crucially, by providing long term support and mutual care. Finally, through arts and heritage, through sport and activity, and through social solidarity, it provides a locus for belonging and identity.

Much has changed since we concluded the Civil Society Futures independent inquiry, but much too has remained the same. It is clear that it is in everyone’s interest to support a flourishing civil society. But it is clear too that the challenges faced by civil society are many, varied, and unpredictable. Allowing civil society to achieve its potential – to the benefit of us all – is therefore not something that will come about by accident. Rather we must learn the lessons of our past and engage in a collective active effort to improve the world we live in.

[1] Civil Society Futures was an independent inquiry that ran from 2017-18, taking in community events, academic research and online debate. The inquiry concluded in November 2018.

[2] A Firmin, M Tiwana & D Walter, State of Civil Society Report 2016, CIVICUS, October 2016

[3] H Shah & F Iftikhar, “If lockdown continues, nine out of 10 BAME voluntary organisations will close. Who will help support us then?”, The Independent, 7 May 2020

[4] Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, “Chancellor’s statement on coronavirus (Covid-19): 8 April 2020”, HM Treasury, 8 April 2020

[5] See, for instance, A Kenley & M Whittaker, Weathering the storm: PBE Covid Charity Tracker, Pro Bono Economics, August 2020

[6] brap, Let’s Talk About Race: Civil society and race equality, Civil Society Futures, November 2018