What does the future hold for civil society?

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Julia Unwin: Civil society is at risk of making itself irrelevant unless it is willing to change the way it works

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12th February 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

For two years I led an inquiry considering what the future holds for civil society in England. We commissioned research, heard evidence, had conversations, listened attentively and spent time considering what the future looked like.

We published our findings in November 2018 as Civil Society Futures,  and concluded that the environment within which civil society operates is changing fast – and will continue to change. We know that change is in the DNA of civil society, and that civil society has been at its best at times of huge change. But to rise to the extraordinary challenges we face, civil society needs to consider its own behaviour, attitudes and practices.

Julia Unwin

Julia Unwin

If we change we have the opportunity to organise to address the biggest challenges we face – our dented democracy, our torn social fabric and the major threat of climate change.

I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years. I’ve learned that civil society is active everywhere in England, that it is under supported and that it is angry. I’ve learned that government – local, national, regional – is entirely dependent upon active, engaged civil society.

I’ve learned that there are subjects we don’t talk about – like racism and the wound it represents in our country’s life, and there are subjects we love to talk about, like funding and why commissioning is the wrong model.

I’ve learned how little trust there is within civil society, and how much we struggle with really difficult issues like power and accountability. And I’ve learned quite how much resentment there is about funders who are seen as extractive and not contributors and allies in the work (and that hurts when you’ve been involved in funding decisions for a lot of your life).

And I’ve learned again something I think I always knew: that civil society is at its very best and has its maximum power when it is working to deeply connect within communities, between communities, between politicians and people who are angry, between institutions and networks and movements. And that people really want to belong, and that associational life is our biggest single asset.

So, we’ve called for a PACT – a new assertion of our values and the ways we want to work. It stands for Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust. I must admit that I have had a wry smile when people have told me that they’re already PACT compliant. I don’t believe it’s a destination, and I don’t think I’ve come across an organisation that would seriously think that it had made all the shift in behaviours and that the real change is only for others to make.

But I have been lucky enough to talk about the PACT with all sorts of organisations – inside and outside civil society – and have been so struck by the recognition in business, in government, in local authorities and in civil society that the world’s changing fast. That our place in it will not be protected by anyone other than ourselves.

Unless we address the ways we behave, we run the very real risk of irrelevance. And that won’t be bad for us – it will be devastating for the whole of society and will leave a real crisis for the next generation. That’s our responsibility.

Julia Unwin is the former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and a respected strategic leader with extensive experience across the third and public sectors.

Event at The Gathering 2019:

The future of the third sector: responding to a changing society Wednesday 20 Feb, 2.30-4pm, Lomond Suite