Steve Wyler warns that the voluntary sector must not become complacent about its contribution to the common good.
As I look to the future of the voluntary sector, I ask myself a simple question. To what extent will it contribute to the common good?
Some people might wonder why it is necessary to ask the question. Surely all organisations within the voluntary sector exist to ‘do good’ and so by definition, must contribute to the common good? But I think that is too easy, and too self-serving, and needs to be examined a little more closely.
Common good is not a straightforward concept, and there are different and even opposing views of what it means. One comes from the Christian tradition, going all the way back to Augustine and Aquinas, and is the foundation for modern Catholic social teaching. This view emphasises that common goods are produced through relationships and commitments made by people and social groups to each other. Aspects of this thinking can be found in other traditions, secular as well as religious, on the left as well as on the right - Robert Owen’s ‘villages of co-operation’, and Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’, for example.
Recently neuroscience, behavioural economics, and positive psychology are creating an increasing body of empirical evidence that human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to seek meaning and fulfilment in and through relationships that create common goods.
A group of civil society organisations, supported by the Carnegie UK Trust and CCLA, has recently set out a Call to Action for the Common Good. This is not addressed to the voluntary sector alone, but also to public and business sectors, and suggests that common good principles are capable of application across all sectors. It points out that the common good does not happen of itself, but rather has to be made and continually remade, and proposes a national debate to stimulate people to apply the principles within their organisations and within their sphere of influence. Critically it reminds us that we are not starting from scratch, that examples of good practice do exist, and can be built upon.
As the Call to Action emphasises, the power of the common good is that it is nothing if not hopeful, not least because it implies a confidence in ‘people-powered change’, and the possibility of realising wider public purpose which transcends short-term self-interest.
But many institutions (public, private, and voluntary) will, in practice, find this extremely difficult. The assumption that people are not capable of acting as agents of change, that others need to act on their behalf, is widespread. Transactional, command-and-control models of organisation have become dominant in every sector and in our political system. All attempts to go beyond narrow individual and institutional self-interest to practice common good, in its radical associative sense, would constitute a threat to business as usual, and it would be foolish to underestimate the consequent resistance. The common good reveals itself as something which must be deeply contested, subjected to deliberative debate, if it is to mean anything worthwhile. And that applies as much to the voluntary sector as to other sectors.
But when people really do find themselves working together for the common good it can be intensely liberating. Power and ownership and risk and reward are distributed more widely, trust and friendships are built, new forms of solidarity emerge.
What would happen if we were to apply the lens of the common good to the big challenges which society faces (austerity, the widening poverty gap, the ageing population, the decline in democratic engagement, the threat of climate change, for example)? In all these cases, if it is true that common goods can only be produced by relationships and commitments between people, then above all we will need to build and to practice new forms of association, which embrace many more people, and many more interest groups, from neighbourhood level to national level, in politics, in business, in public services, and indeed in the voluntary sector, if we are to have any hope of tackling these problems, rather than forever going for the quick fix and endlessly pushing the problems away, to someone else, or down to the next generation.
Steve Wyler OBE was, until recently, the chief executive of Locality, a nationwide movement of community organisations ambitious for change, and is a member of a collaborative of individuals and organisations called ‘A Call to Action for the Common Good.’
- This is the third in a series of articles on the future of the voluntary sector being published by Civil Society News ahead of the publication of a collection of essays by Civil Exchange.