Civil society is too divided with local and newer organisations not feeling that the established charity sector “has got their back”, Julia Unwin said yesterday.
Unwin has been chairing the Civil Society Futures Inquiry, which will publish its final report in November, and was speaking at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering.
As part of the inquiry she has visited many communities across England and closely interrogated some areas.
“The environment is changing fast and is hugely challenging,” she said, adding that she has learned “how detached and divided we have become – not just as society, but as civil society.”
She said society is divided along generational, class and racial lines, and civil society is “equally divided”.
“There is a lack of trust and deep connection between some larger organisations, not necessarily national, and some community organisations and new start-up organisations,” she said.
This is partly because “the shape of civil society is changing” with new movements and networks “challenging existing institutions; sometimes operating alongside each other, sometimes tripping them up”.
She said this was a “real challenge” and that established bodies shouldn’t ignore “these angry outliers of people telling us we got it all wrong”.
“We would be ignoring the message that local organisations, start-up organisations, social enterprises and community organisations don’t feel that this establishment has got their back. They don’t feel supported and protected or engaged,” she said.
‘We squander trust at our peril’
Unwin said that “trust is our biggest currency” which is “worth more than our brand names or our balance sheets”, and that “we squander that trust within civil society at our peril”.
This means that the established parts of the sector need to pay “really careful attention to the challenges that are coming our way” and listen to what communities tell them.
They might be “irritating” or “disruptive” but “they may be right”, she said.
“We have been completely thrown by inability to listen” on issues like Brexit, Unwin told the audience.
‘Re-energised civil society’
Unwin said if civil society can “build the deep connections within it” and “if it can invest in trust within it”, then it will be in a good place to respond to challenges.
“A re-energised civil society, with a different way of operating and different set of behaviours, has got capacity to start to rebuild trust in democracy,” she said.
She said: "There has never been a moment of huge change in this country where civil society did not step up.
"Our enduring purpose has to be to connect people with power to those without power and people who feel they haven’t got power to each other. I think if we really address that civil society is in a very strong place."
‘There are some things legacy organisations do better’
Kirsty McNeil, executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children, was also speaking at the session and said there is still a role for “legacy” charities such as hers.
She said there had been a “profound disruption to our monopoly” but there is still a role for more established charities.
There is still a need for some things such as emergency humanitarian relief to be delivered at scale, she said, adding that established bodies are often better placed to defend policy wins over the long term as they have access to political and media contacts.
This means they can help provide a “platform” to other campaigns. She said the sector should “get better at this”.
McNeil gave the example of Save the Children offering a meeting space to other organisations to work collaboratively - not insisting on leading the discussions, but saying “you know where to find us”.