Between 2017 and 18, the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society examined the environment in which civil society operates, the many pressures and changes it faces, and engaged groups, networks, organisations and individuals to develop a shared understanding of what the future might hold, and the role of civil society in shaping it.
We found that many feel that civil society could do more to respond to changes in our society – to divisions between people; to how automation and globalisation are reshaping how we work and live; to how our democracy is being questioned, with many feeling their voices are going unheard. We also found that austerity and inequality has made life tougher and radically altered the environment for many working in civil society.
We know that civil society has a vital role to play in helping to address the challenges that lie ahead. With so many pressures on civil society, inevitably we must look to government, to regulators, to business, to funders for support and answers. However, the inquiry found that we also need to turn the mirror on ourselves too, if we are to respond more powerfully to the challenges we will face in the future.
The Small Charities Coalition is launching the Big Support Small campaign, speaking directly to some of the ways in which civil society can turn the mirror on itself. The campaign encourages people to share examples of where small charities have worked with big charities, to appreciate and do more to build those types of relationships.
Throughout the Inquiry, we heard examples of where relationships between large national charities and smaller community groups are being nurtured. For example, we heard from Shelter, where they were hiring community organisers, working out of regional hubs, to work with local people, share expertise and resources and help them campaign on local issues.
We also heard of the challenges that can exist in the dynamics between larger and smaller charities too. In particular, we heard about larger charities’ unhelpful focus on the ‘Westminster bubble’ that has not helped causes small charities are fighting for locally. We heard about inequality in commissioning and bidding processes, where smaller charities feel they miss-out on contracts or feel unfairly treated by larger charities when taken on as a sub-contractor or partner. We heard about large national charities’ corporate processes to run at scale nationally and a lack of curiosity and engagement with existing local expertise and community activities.
The Big Support Small campaign encourages charities of all sizes to be more curious, to think more about how big and small charities can work together, improve their relationship and to celebrate this. From the Inquiry’s perspective, after reflecting upon what the 3000+ people we engaged said to us, much of it also boiled down to these core issues of relationship. How can we get to a place where relationships are more healthy, vibrant, equitable, diverse and impactful within civil society? If we can achieve this, civil society – with its rich diversity, expertise and close knowledge of daily life– will be the central driving force in supporting our society to address the challenges it faces and will face in the future.
In the inquiry’s final report, we offer a roadmap developed by civil society called the PACT to reflect upon, test and build relationships of this type. As an example, it calls for all of us in civil society – people, organisations and institutions – to commit to thinking more about the power we have in relationships with others and using that power more effectively to help everyone play a full part in the things that matter to them.
Power dynamics are deep rooted and hard to address, particularly when we’re asked to look at ourselves. More awareness and discussion of these power dynamics will help to start improve relationships between big and small charities. When big charities use their power, resource and influence purposively through collaboration with small charities, sharing their expertise with each other,, strengthening those connections, they will improve impact and support for those most in need in our society.
Asif Afridi is part of the Civil Society Futures team. He is the deputy CEO of brap, a national equality and human rights charity that is transforming the way we think and do equality.