Following on from his piece last month on where philanthropy is in the devolution discussion, Rhodri Davies from CAF says that we are wrong to think of it as just one conversation.
Last week I attended a hustings event for the Liverpool City Region mayoral elections, organised by the VS6 coalition of VCSE and faith groups and held in the mightily impressive setting of the city’s Anglican cathedral.
This followed on from the recent mayoral hustings in Manchester, which prompted me to ask why philanthropy is so noticeably absent from the devolution conversation. I actually planned to ask this question at the Liverpool hustings, but unfortunately ran out of time. The event did, however, give me further food for thought.
One of the things that struck me about the Liverpool hustings was the way in which it highlighted differences between the civil society context in the Liverpool area and Greater Manchester. This is something I have also picked up from wider conversations. For example, there is more obvious emphasis on social enterprise and on faith groups in Liverpool; whereas in Manchester there is a greater emphasis on service delivery charities and on community groups.
This made me realise that I had been wrong to think that there was a single “devolution debate”. In fact, there are a number of distinct conversations that reflect the widely differing contexts of different areas.
This might sound like the sort of obvious “revelation” that only someone who has fairly recently moved up North from London could have. Unfortunately, it still seems like too much central government thinking about devolution is also based upon an assumption that it will work the same way in each area. Whilst one can understand the desire for consistency at a policy level, this should be about ensuring that the processes are consistent, rather than trying to force the same structure onto each devolution deal.
If we don’t get this right, then it will limit the potential for civil society to get involved. That risks devolution becoming reduced to a narrow and purely economic agenda. This would be a massive waste of what might well be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redistribute power in this country.
This was also the central theme of an IPPR North event I took part in last week, involving civil society leaders from all across the North. The consensus at the event seemed to be that there are clear opportunities on offer in the form of elected city region mayors, the Northern Powerhouse agenda and so on; but that these developments will not automatically benefit communities or those in need unless civil society organisations step up to the plate and demand a voice.
I think this is absolutely right: the best way to ensure that the implementation of devolution does actual match the needs and priorities of local areas is to involve the organisations that actually work with and represent the people and communities that live in them.
The philanthropy question
This brings me back to the question of philanthropy, because to my mind it is one vital element of supporting a healthy civil society in local areas. There are huge opportunities to use devolution to boost place-based giving, or for new city region mayors to use their soft power to encourage and coordinate a renaissance in civic philanthropy
But what I have also come to realise is that any efforts to boost philanthropy must also reflect the specific local context. Areas often have very different histories, demographic make-up, culture and civil society contexts. So there is no point trying to impose a top down “philanthropy strategy”, just as there is no point trying to impose a top-down approach to devolution. Philanthropy is an unruly beast at the best of times, and we are only going to maximise its potential as a force for civic renewal if we go with the grain to some extent.
That is not to say we should simply be satisfied with the status quo, or unwilling to challenge existing failings in philanthropic provision. Whilst philanthropy has many strengths, it also has some obvious weaknesses (for one thing, it is ill-equipped to offer equity or consistency across geographic areas).We need to find ways of overcoming these weaknesses, and we also need to balance the idealism that should drive a vision of how devolution could work for civil society with the pragmatism needed to make things happen so that we can get as close to that vision as possible.
Philanthropy is one piece of a jigsaw when it comes to thinking about how to strengthen our towns, cities and regions; and the shape of that piece is going to differ in different places. But without it, the puzzle cannot be completed. That is why we need to develop an approach to place-based philanthropy that is flexible enough to adapt to local contexts but also has enough of a common core to make it clear that this a movement; and one that should play a crucial role in efforts to devolve power and strengthen local areas.