Civil Society - The Future? Our thoughts on the Civil Society Futures Report (and what it means for our members)

The long-awaited final summary report from Civil Society Futures was published this week. Over the past two years, the Civil Society Futures team have spoken to over 3,000 people and have attended hundreds of events and meetings across the country to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues facing grassroots movements and organisations. The report was funded by a collective of trusts and foundations, including our members Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Lloyds Bank Foundation, City Bridge Trust and the Lankelly Chase Foundation.

The summary findings 'The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society' found that the environment in which civil society operates has been both "challenging and exciting", and that "re-energised, civil society could be at the heart of the changes that we need in our society as a whole". Civil society is desperately needed to revive our dented democracy and tackle great challenges such as climate change. 'The Story of Our Times' notes that aside from environmental and economic concerns (unsurprisingly the backdrop of austerity is mentioned frequently), that changing demographics - such as the ageing population, that there are many more people living with disabilities and mental health conditions, and that we have greater diversity in faith and ethnicity than ever before - means that the structure that we operate within needs to change. The report acknowledges as well that civil society does not exist in isolation - it is part of a large and complex ecosystem, and increasingly civil society, government and businesses need to work together for a thriving society. 

The report argues that although civil society is already responding to changing need in both practical ways (food banks), and through powerful movements (Black Lives Matter), it is not doing enough to respond to people and communities' desire for power. If civil society does not "continually, bravely work to build trust", it will lose the foundation for everything it does. Currently civil society is not yet fit for purpose - "it lacks confidence, skills and credibility, and there are too many examples of charities and institutions being part of the problem". 

The report identifies the themes where change is most needed - place-based work, belonging and identity, work and purpose, and how civil society organises. For civil society to change, and be 'fit for the future' it puts forward a PACT (Power, Accountability, Connection, Trust) pledge of shared aspirations for us all to commit to. This will be for the decade ahead and beyond. Civil Society Futures states that the sector should not wait for permission, or hope that others will provide a plan. Instead civil society should make a commitment to get ready for the future. The map is designed to guide us all into the future with a shared set of principles, practices and questions.

'The Story of our Times' is littered with examples of models which offer glimpses of a better civil society in the future, including from our members Toynbee Hall, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Lankelly Chase. It also features The Way Ahead - a cross-sector initiative which is modelling a new system of civil society support in the capital, which London Funders has been co-ordinating and supporting. The Way Ahead is cited as an example of PACT in action - it puts London's communities at the heart of the way we all work, sets out challenges for the way we all work and is changing the narrative, "fixing the plumbing that helps the power to flow more effectively and giving confidence to those working directly with Londoners themselves". Click here for more information on The Way Ahead. 

The report has various recommendations for funders (from across the spectrum - including independent trusts and Local Authorities) and is critical of poor commissioning practices which have ignored the skills and knowledge held in civil society. A dominant theme throughout the report is that funders need to recognise the inequality within civil society where larger organisations dominate, and that there are too many barriers to funding smaller and informal groups and projects. This was highlighted by this statistic: fewer than one in two charities are confident that they will be operating in 2021. Funders should model shared and distributed models of decision making and control (perhaps through local endowments), and be conscious of the power dynamic that exists between funders and grantees. Furthermore, all sectors of civil society (including funders) should stay true to their values and be honest about failures and successes, defending rights and calling out injustice. Like us, the Civil Society Futures team proposes that all funders should engage with 360 Giving and share their grants on GrantNav

The Civil Society Futures team have also published a separate paper on civil society and race equality which outlines best practice for funders working in this space. We've done our best to summarise and condense the findings relevant to our members here, but really the entire website, its case studies and references are a goldmine of good practice and we would highly recommend having a browse through. 

By Geraldine Tovey, Membership, Communications and Events Manager