Let’s be bold and seek to shape our own future

The NCVO Annual Conference last week felt like a rallying cry for the sector, two days after the announcement of a snap general election with a strong message from Sir Stuart Etherington NCVO CEO about being bold in these rapidly changing and uncertain times. He talked about the need for bold leadership now more than ever in a Brexit dominated landscape and in the aftermath of the ‘divisive and ugly referendum campaign’ that exploited fears and social tensions, amplifying and igniting them. He called for different thinking that went beyond the call for replacements for the loss of European funding but set out our vision of what post Brexit Britain and civil society should look like.

We should act as ‘the eyes and ears and conscience of society’ he said, as recommended by the recent House of Lords select committee on charities report, Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society that should shape our sector going forward. The analysis and recommendations of this cross-party committee’s report recognise that Britain benefits greatly from the sector. But with its 100 conclusions, including 42 recommendations, the strong message is that to continue, charities, and those who support them, need to adapt so that they can better make an impact in the changing world around them. (If you don’t have time to read the report, NCVO have put the recommendations together for you in one document (PDF, 130KB).)

Sir Stuart called for the sector to stop waiting to be asked as politicians are consumed by the election sprint and Brexit, and to put forward our knowledge, expertise and solutions. For example, he called for bold messages to government about using funds from dormant assets to endow community foundations across the country which could then become investments to sustain local charities for decades to come. I would certainly endorse that message if the government is serious about supporting local smaller charities and creating stronger local communities and community asset bases.

His call for being more bold and ambitious for the sector and making things happen fed nicely into key note speaker Julia Unwin’s speech which she used to launch the new Civil Society Futures Inquiry, a two-year exploration by English civil society into its future.

Civil Society Futures is identified as a ‘national conversation’ about how ‘English civil society can flourish in a fast changing world’. The conversation will be guided by an independent panel of people with perspectives ranging from theatre making in South Wales to tech investment in Gaza, local government in the North of England to the world’s alliance of civil society organisations. It will be chaired by Julia Unwin.

‘Through community events, academic research and online debate, Civil Society Futures will create a space for a much needed conversation among those involved in all forms of civic action – from informal networks to vast charities, Facebook groups to faith groups. Considering how both the nature of civil society and the context it exists in are changing fast, we will investigate how to maximise the positive effects of civic action and provide a guide to how to release its potential to drive positive change.’

Julia highlighted that civil society is about everything that makes life worth living. ‘It’s the groups we join and the protest we show. It’s the way we create and the way we support. It springs from solidarity, and from kindness, but from anger and frustration too.’

She also reminded us that change and how we respond to it is in our DNA. And this is most definitely a time of change in almost every dimension and a lot of system change has not necessarily had a positive impact on the sector and those we represent. The impact of austerity measures and welfare reform for example have changed the behaviour and capacity of both national and local government and fundamentally impacted on public expectations of it.  Insecurity is the prevailing feeling for many people and inequality within the nation has soared.

Julia pointed out that history teaches us that the state has always wanted voluntary organisations to help but not be heard.

‘They have always tried to stop us asking awkward questions. And yet we have torn off every gag they have bound us with. We have always fought to ensure that those whom we represent have their voices heard. And as another election approaches, we must be bold once more in telling our truths to the powerful.’

Civil society, after all, has always been the turf on which public debate takes place and we surely have a vital role in reviewing, reviving, revitalising our democracy.

We also have a role in shaping our own future and a commitment has been made by Julia that the panel she will lead also wants to be bold: ‘Bold in the questions we ask. Bold in the people we engage with. And bold in making recommendations that will challenge all of us.’

She clarified the approach they would take would not be one of going to sit and think for two years and then tell us their conclusions. ‘Our process is full engagement. We will do our best to listen carefully to all of you, and refuse to pass on the other side where we see difficult questions ahead.’

She has said they want to hear from all parts of civil society, in all sorts of ways and has invited us all to host our own civil society future conversations. They will provide the questions, and the frameworks but the hope is that that across England there will be conversations about the future of civil society. They will be issuing calls for evidence, and going to neighbourhoods across the country with Citizens UK, listening hard and hearing what people want to tell us.

I was heartened and indeed reinvigorated in my belief in the power of civil society by Julia’s final incisive comments:

•    Civil society has power through membership, through affiliation, through a sense of belonging. And we have not understood that as well as we should.
•    That place matters to people, and that when public policy ignores the importance of place we make big mistakes.
•    And those difficult conversations about the shape of our society, and the nature of our country, are desperately urgently needed. We can’t have them without an active, intelligent and fully engaged civil society.

VONNE will be looking at how we can ensure the view, hopes and aspirations of the sector in the north east can be fed in and influence the inquiry. Meantime if you wish to fill in the civil society futures on line questionnaire please visit the civil society website.