A 2020 Vision

To coincide with London Funders’ publication of the Review of Reviews, John Griffiths reflects on what 2020 might bring for the capital’s civil society and some implications for funders  . . .

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

These words of the metaphysical poet and one-time Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, have never had more portent as we prepare to leave the European Union. What on the morning of 24th June 2016 might have seemed a knee-jerk act of political protest, has exposed deep-seated socio-economic divisions throughout the land, as well as between the capital and the rest of the country. Recent analyses of the implications for the UK of the Brexit vote show that this is not a time for London’s “splendid isolation.”[1]  

The UK’s decision to leave the EU proved to be the cue for a lengthy bout of self-analysis and enquiry. The last two years have seen an outpouring of reports looking at different aspects of the condition and future of Britain.[2]  They explore the changes required to our democracy, education and economy in order to confront the biggest challenges facing the country today of which inequality, the focus of a new 5-year inquiry by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, is consistently identified as the greatest.[3]  

What is absent from these assessments is any significant contradiction to the narrative of an irrevocably shrunken state unable to cope with rising demographic pressures and social demand. The social contract which underpinned the welfare state for over 70 years – ie that in exchange for taxation and personal responsibility government will provide for its citizens “from cradle to grave” – appears broken.[4] In the search for an alternative system, the reviews share a certain optimism that a far more inclusive civil society, one no longer synonymous with a “third sector” but also embracing business, is key to our achieving a new form of lasting social settlement.  

Another recurring theme of these analyses is the growing significance of place as the focus for policy making and social innovation in communities.  Following more than two decades of devolution and localism, the government’s Civil Society Strategy (2018) gives genuine substance to the belief that “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.” This is a policy trend which is likely to strengthen following our eventual exit from the EU, once government defines its idea of “double devolution” and certain powers and funds are repatriated.  Several high-profile foundations, as well as the appropriately re-named National Lottery Community Fund, are already taking a more place-based approach to their funding in order to stimulate social action, coordinate investment and unlock local assets.[5] They seem to be tapping into the  popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly atomised society, one in which people look to place as a way of reaffirming their identity and a sense of belonging.

Understanding the current zeitgeist, of which the process of Brexit is more symptom than cause, offers some pointers to London Funders’ future priorities. In what is an increasingly fractured country, there are two fissures which seem to stand out most.  One is the growth in both income and wealth inequality between the richest and the poorest in society, indicators which are particularly pronounced within London.[6] The other is the increasing divide between capital and country.

Whilst debates about the future sustainability and fairness of London have tended to focus on the striking narrative of “a tale of two cities,” this can hide the degree to which there is also a widening schism between London and the rest of the country. Analysis of the geographical differences in the result of the 2016 EU referendum, for example, identified the mounting resentment about the capital’s preferential policy treatment, the disproportionate levels of public spending and its growing levels of individual and corporate wealth.[7] Differences in personal wealth, and hence individuals’ life chances, between the capital and the rest of the UK are the biggest of any country in Europe.  As the Social Mobility Commission has pointed out, children going to school in Westminster and receiving free school meals are five times more likely to go to university and then on to good jobs in London, than children elsewhere in the country.[8]

In the so-called “post-truth era,” a time of increasingly shrill political discourse and “fake news,” London Funders’ existence as an apolitical, neutral forum in which to ferment ideas, challenge traditional orthodoxies or question new-fangled concepts, is increasingly valuable.  As its membership and reputation grow, however, so do people’s expectations.  Several of the reviews of civil society showcase the organisation’s work, whilst Centre for London’s “More, Better, Together” (which could easily be a strapline for London Funders), directs more than half of its fourteen recommendations to London Funders’ door.

In these circumstances, London Funders has an opportunity to project the reviews’ more inclusive image of a modern civil society in the capital. Their largely optimistic outlook, that civil society has a vital role to play in helping to address (and find solutions to) the challenges ahead, does not gloss over the more hard-hitting assertion that “civil society will not be able to do this without changing itself.”[9] This is meant to be a joint, inclusive effort; civil society’s creativity and synergy come from the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors working together with a shared interest in a common purpose and common wealth.  However, when it is convenient to do so, it is all too easy to revert to traditional thinking, equating the term “civil society” with the “third sector,” a discreet area outside the state and the commercial market, which can reinforce a sense of competition, difference and otherness. 

An important corollary of London Funders’ providing a safe space for collaboration is that its members appreciate the opportunity and value of being challenged. The reviews’ widening of the parameters of a modern civil society, to include business when it acts for a social purpose, provides the organisation with a challenge. It is essential that its membership reflects the cross-sectoral nature (including more private-sector representation), the range of place-based and community interests and the diversity of London’s civil society. The risk is that a narrow or unrepresentative membership creates an echo chamber, with insufficient capacity or courage to address fully the challenges set out, for example, by Julia Unwin’s Inquiry, which envisions civil society thriving only as result of our collective willingness to redefine difficult concepts of Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust.[10]

The Review of Reviews cannot do justice to the range and variety of work already supported by London’s funders, and which largely complements the reviews’ vision of a mid c21st civil society.  It does flag up a handful of opportunities and challenges for funders under the three headings of People, Place and Philanthropy (the “3 Ps”) which are intended to further the implementation of London Funders’ current strategy, 2018-21, based on “the 4 Cs” its guiding principles and ways of working – Convene, Connect, Contribute and Cooperate. 

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders



[1] Patchwork Philanthropy: Philanthropic and Public Spending Blind Spots and the Brexit Vote, The Young Foundation, 2017;  London, UK: Strengthening ties between capital and country, Centre for London 2019

[2] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018; Civil Society in England – its current state and future potential, Civil Society Futures, 2018; Prosperity and justice: A plan for the new economy, IPPR, 2018

[3] Recalling William Beveridge’s five “Giant Evils” (squalor, ignorance, idleness, want and disease),  the RSA’s updated “new giants” of the 21st century are inequality, disempowerment, isolation, intolerance and climate change.  See “Britain’s New Giants”, Ed Cox, RSA 2018

[4] Hilary Cottam, Radical Need: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state, 2018 

[5] Building Bridges: Bringing Councils, Communities and Independent Funders into Dialogue, New Local Government Network and London Funders, July 2017

[6] See London’s Poverty Profile;

[7] See Professor Danny Dorling’s assessment “Equality and what Brexit tells us about the British” public lecture, 8th December 2018

[8] Social Mobility Commission, State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain

[9] Civil Society Futures – The Story of Our Times: Shifting Power, Bridging Divides; Transforming Society p.4, 2018

[10] Civil Society Futures addressed this issue head on: Let’s Talk About Race: Civil Society and race equality. It found that whilst some parts of civil society are discussing these issues, it’s too often muted or insufficient.