It slips easily off the tongue to say these are not easy times for civil society. There are real challenges: funding cuts, money flowing to the top of the sector, almost daily attacks on charities in the press, the Lobbying Act, ‘gagging-clauses’ and so on. All of this has led to us demanding a lot of change from others – the government, usually – and mostly without much effect.
So, this is a good time to pause and re-consider.
First, is it all as bad as we think? And, if there are things that are wrong, who is best placed to make it better? My answers to these two questions are: ‘no’ and ‘us’.
There is no doubt, there has been a vigorous shaking of the tree in the last few years. Some good organisations have gone down. But most would also say that some over-ripe and even bad apples have fallen. And that’s no bad thing.
Total revenue to the sector is at record levels. Public appetite for social change is at a peak. There is a lot to play for politically. And despite the best efforts of The Daily Mail, the public still trusts charities more than business or politicians. We have a unique ‘licence to operate’ – civil society’s most valuable asset.
'Things are changing around us'
So, things are certainly changing around us, but there is still a great deal to work with and the best of civil society is responding to the challenge. And they are achieving some truly remarkable things.
This is the headline finding from The Social Change Project – an initiative SMK has been running for the last eighteen months. Its remit was to understand how social change is happening today, in order to strengthen civil society’s future efforts. The project brought together a community of practice drawn from right across civil society – from service re-design to social movements – to consider this question.
The story that has emerged is that civil society is driving some extraordinarily powerful social change and is, indeed, where most significant change originates. At best, civil society is resourceful, innovative, thoughtful and kind. It gets upstream of problems, unlocks value, shares power and saves money. It does things in ways that both the state and the private sector struggle to do.
The evidence suggests that civil society holds the key to some of society’s most pressing challenges: from issues like climate change to knife crime and street homelessness. Working optimally, we believe civil society holds huge untapped potential – a capacity for change that we have called Social Power. Yet this latent power is constrained.
Some of these constraints are external – notably challenges to voice and campaigning from the current administration and also, and maybe even more fundamental, a misunderstanding of value. To see civil society as being the same as the private sector, and to have internalised the language and behaviours of commercial markets, has distorted and fundamentally de-valued civil society’s work. Our report argues that civil society, when delivering genuinely transformative change (as opposed to transacting services) does not work in the same way as the private sector and should not be commissioned on the same basis.
Realising the full potential of civil society sits with us
However, the Social Change Project report identifies even more internal constraints. It argues that realising the full potential of civil society – unlocking Social Power – is something that sits with us more than with those around us.
These constraints include:
- a lack of focus on mission – organisations that have become more driven by money and model, than by what they exist to do. When fundraising is king, both principle and purpose are lost.
- internal cultures that are too focused on performance management rather than impact –tracking of outcomes can distract from focus on mission, slow organisations down and prevent them from being flexible, adaptive and responsive.
- a lack of inclusivity and diversity in the sector, and not enough connection with the grass roots. If civil society does not reflect those we purport to serve, then we cannot do the work. Legitimacy is compromised, our learning weakened and capacity to effect change reduced.
- a lack of bold leadership. Change happens when civil society thinks big, and dares to challenge. There was a strong feeling in our community of practice that civil society needs more leaders willing to do this. ‘Not to call on others. But to take the lead ourselves. And take others with us’.
The final report of the project, Social Power: how Civil Society Can ‘Play Big’ and Truly Effect Change, does give recommendations for ‘others’ – for government and for funders. But it has more for those of us in civil society. The report encourages us to use our knowledge, our experience, our resources – our power – to drive the change we want to see. Not to call on others. But to take the lead ourselves. And take others with us.
The report gives recommendations to strengthen organisational reputation, strategy and culture for those who run organisations and for all of us it has also identified ‘The Twelve Habits of Effective Change-Makers’.
In the words of Ghandi: ‘If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him... We need not wait to see what others do.’ That is our call to civil society today: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’
Sue Tibballs is the chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.
This essay is one of a series being produced by A Better Way in Insights for a Better Way: Improving Services and Building Communities which is published by Civil Exchange, in partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust. The book was published on 4 July and is available here.