One of the most fun gigs I did this year was at the Good Help Awards. Julia Unwin and I had both been asked to speak so I suggested that instead of doing the usual talking head stuff we just get up, spark a conversation and see where it went. A different approach, it kept us on our toes and hopefully entertained the audience!
A few months later I read the inquiry’s interim report ‘Power in our Hands’ and found further evidence of how aligned the inquiry’s direction of travel is with our own at the Big Lottery Fund (soon to re-birth as the National Lottery Community Fund). We call it ‘People in the Lead’, the inquiry calls it ‘putting power in the hands of people and communities’. And at the heart of being able to realise this ambition lies a flourishing civil society.
Civil society is a golden thread that runs through our individual and collective lives. It brings us together, cares for those in need, enables passions and hobbies to be pursued, dreams to be fulfilled, and connects us to each other and the world around us. It is the allotment society, the village hall, the community centre, the food bank volunteers, the green gym. It is the Big Lunch, the RSPB, and the Children’s Society, the Campaign to End Loneliness, Uprising and the Terrence Higgins Trust.
This great tapestry of activity and talent is something we can be immensely proud of – other countries look on with admiration. It has evolved over centuries, changing focus, some organisations have come and gone, others are still with us – think Coram, or Catch 22; old forms adapt – think livery companies and guilds; and new ones arrive – think B-Corps or CICs. And here we are today, in a period of profound disruption and innovation – one perhaps that rivals the industrial revolution in its impact on people’s lives. A technological revolution with a social revolution running to catch up.
Whilst our structures and systems don’t necessarily align with the way in which we now live, with the complexity of a globalised yet atomised world, at the heart of civil society lie a set of profoundly powerful human values – love, generosity, community, companionship – not a set of processes and systems. Our challenge is to re-design how we work, the systems and networks we operate, and the way we communicate to reflect these values in a twenty-first century context.
We are on that journey at the Big Lottery Fund. We have reconfigured how we work so that we are closer to communities, with funding officers locally based and out and about in the field; our new Reaching Communities & Partnership programmes have abandoned formal application forms and replaced them with a conversational approach. We are experimenting with different approaches to local funding and engaging communities and are running a pilot programme, with UnLtd and the help of Baljeet Sandhu to see how we can develop lived experience leaders.
But as the work of Civil Society Futures reminds us, there remains much to be done. To truly give people more agency over their lives, we must support them to make more of the decisions that matter to them, for example about what their place looks and feels like. That means moving beyond traditional command and control models that do things ‘to’ and ‘for’ people. Instead, we must move towards models of generous leadership, driven by a fierce commitment to the common good, alongside a deep understanding of what each of us brings to the party, so that together, we are more.
At its core, civil society enables us all to live better lives – whether that’s about physical or mental well-being, about the place we live, the cohesion of the communities we live in, or just plain having fun together. Civil Society Futures sets out some tough challenges for us all, and paints a picture of what a flourishing, engaged, and vital civil society might look like in the future. I’m looking forward to playing my part in rising to those challenges – what about you?