Community-rooted action is vital for society

Rich Bell

Campaigns Lead, The Cares Family

At its heart, civil society is and always has been about the power of human connection,” concluded the 2018 report of the Civil Society Futures independent inquiry. Yet, during the last decade, it has often seemed as if civil society has been viewed by those in power as there to plug gaps in service provision left behind by a contracting public sector. As an insurance policy, rather than a distinct realm of public life. 

Green shoots have sprouted in some areas as enterprising local authorities have sought to empower community organisations and groups to work in new ways. Where this approach has borne fruit – from Milton Keynes to Wigan – it has been because policy and decision-makers have recognised the special role which locally-rooted organisations play in the shared life of their community. 

Organisations and groups which are truly of their community as well as for it can do things which the state, big businesses and even larger, more remote charities simply can’t. Because they really know the areas in which they work, they are able to reach people which other organisations aren’t. Because they know first-hand the power which rests within neighbours’ relationships both with one another and with the place they call home, they are capable of unleashing it. 

All too often, though, the understandable desire of policymakers, funders, and organisational leaders to achieve impact at scale has led to genuinely community-led charities being overlooked or – worse still – becoming untethered from the place from which they derive their unique character and sense of purpose. 

At The Cares Family, we have at times struggled to balance our desire to do more with our firm conviction that lasting change is brought about from the bottom up through the development of empowering relationships. As we’ve grown from a tiny community project in north London to a national organisation with profile and influence – and as we’ve built new branch charities which work to tackle loneliness by bringing together older and younger neighbours in other rapidly changing cities – we have strived to stay true to our values as a community-led organisation. We took steps to ensure that each new Cares charity was able to grow its own distinct identity and portfolio of activities, but the truth is that they haven’t always had the power they needed to capitalise on their deep understanding of the places in which they work. 

We’re acting now to invest more and more local autonomy into each of our branch charities – because we know that protecting and deepening their authentic connections with their areas will be key to increasing our impact both locally and nationally. 

It’s also true that the language we use to describe civil society can create the impression that the work of community-rooted organisations matters less than that of larger charities. When we refer to the ‘third’, ‘social’ or ‘not-for-profit’ sector, we risk reinforcing the impression that civil society is comprised entirely of formally constituted charities and social enterprises whose working practices are modelled on those of the public and private sectors. 

It’s not. Civil society is made up of the spaces in which we relate to one another not as consumers, clients or even as citizens, but as people. It is where we express our innate empathy and build and nurture relationships which are neither transactional nor functional, but which are personal and sustain us. And while doing for others is part of that, so is connecting with them. 

The ecosystem of civil society includes community organisations and charities of all sizes and purposes but also the pubs, high street shops, and public institutions where people meet and mix organically. We need only look back on the last year to realise that these businesses and services generate a unique form of social value in allowing people to connect with the community around them. Ensuring that, when we talk about civil society, everyone knows we mean these spaces too might help us to afford them the extra support which they need in times of challenge – to remember that they play too big and important a part in our lives, and in stitching us together, to be allowed to just disappear. 

There can be little doubt that the task of building social connection is an increasingly urgent one. It’s well-evidenced that higher levels of ‘relational wealth’ or social capital – the habits of reciprocity, cooperation and trust which result from strong social networks – are correlated with higher rates of economic growth, improved health outcomes, and feelings of security and belonging. But, in our work over the last decade, The Cares Family has witnessed time and time again the way in which familiar associations and identities have been eroded by breakneck changes linked to globalisation, gentrification, digitalisation and commercialisation. Our community bonds – already been worn down by twentieth century trends including the decline of organised religion and the rise of television – have loosened significantly. 

In our disconnected age, we need a big and expansive idea of civil society which recognises the paramount importance of our relationships with one another to the health and strength of our communities and society. As the Commission wrestles with how we might unleash the full potential of civil society, it should consider how we might better protect and nurture the spaces in which we weave connections as members of local communities and tend to the ties that bind.