Category: Uncategorised

“We come out of change and challenge…”

…Those words from Julia Unwin powerfully capture the spirit of the Change Convention, hosted by Corra Foundation on 9 October in Edinburgh. The day brought together around 300 people, mainly from the voluntary sector, and offered a platform for conversations about how we can create positive change in times of uncertainty.

Illustrator Amber Anderson spent the day listening and encapsulating the themes, questions and ideas that emerged.

Corra Foundation Change Convention

In her opening address, Julia talked of the fundamental shifts taking place throughout many aspects of our society. This included the world of work… demography… the use of digital… the role of place and civic space… the trust people have (or increasingly do not have) in institutions… where power lies (increasingly in the town square, rather than the tower). And, amidst all of this, the question of where people find their sense of belonging and identity, and the crucial role civil society plays in enabling them to do so.

Julia spoke of civil society as being “how we show our best selves”, particularly in turbulent times. When communities experience shocks (for example the Grenfell Tower fire, the impacts of climate change or the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London), it is civil society that enables people to connect, organise and respond quickly to emotional and practical needs.

Civil society can help nurture a sense of community identity and belonging, for example through local arts and culture organisations that support a deep sense of local history and connection to place. This in turn can build confidence, resilience and the circumstances in which communities can exercise power and agency.

“Strong, resilient places welcome new people”
Julia Unwin

Systems change

While times of great change and uncertainty present real and immediate challenges, they also offer the chance to fundamentally question and transform. Julia suggested that civil society must challenge, change, create new ways of doing things and convene around difficult issues and that this is what will make the difference between a future in which communities are atomised, and one in which people are really heard and social justice can be achieved.

“History shows this sector is very good at getting through difficult times… change has always brought about new energy and drive”
Julia Unwin

This idea of working towards fundamental, lasting change was explored in detail through a breakout discussion in partnership with Lankelly Chase. People talked about the need for collaboration, recognising that outcomes are produced not by each of us in isolation but by the whole system of which we are all part.

“Everyone is right, but only partially”
Alice Evans

“Don’t just invite them to the party, invite them to dance”
Karyn McCluskey

The Corra Foundation - Systems Change

The Corra Foundation - Systems Change


“Charities are the lifeblood of society – they knit together the fabric”
Alison Elliot

Another theme explored (in partnership with The Robertson Trust) was about how civil society organisations access the financial resources they need to do their work. The fundraising environment continues to change and evolve and much of the discussion centred on the need for greater collaboration between funders and funded groups and for relationships that go beyond a financial transaction.

The Corra Foundation - Fundraising

The Corra Foundation - Fundraising

Reflecting and looking forward

In closing, Change Convention participants reflected on what the discussions might mean for the future and what their role might be. Themes of collaboration, trust, belonging and human relationships ran throughout the day. People clearly recognised the deep and challenging issues that people face now, and indeed many of those in the room were directly involved in supporting people and communities. However, there was also a sense of hope and of the possibility for us to collectively, proactively work to shape the future. This will hinge on the ability of civil society to support, connect, enable and above all be bold in responding to change.

The Corra Foundation - Reflecting and looking forward

For more information please visit www.corra.scot

20th November 2017

Reasons to be cheerful


All times are tough for the social sector; and so they should be. Charities don’t have a right to exist and we thrive on the tension that comes from living on the edge (I can say this now I’m no longer in daily charge of a charity). But with cuts to the parts of the public sector where we rely the most—especially local authorities, which have lost 40% of their budgets since 2010—charities are squealing more sharply than usual. Brexit sours the mood further: many people who work in our sector associate the European Union with the principles of tolerance, generosity and openness, and feel they are working in a more hostile climate now.

Maybe because it’s a glorious summer day as I write this but I am hugely excited about the potential for our sector at this time. Brexit may well have direct negative consequences for charities. But there are offsetting opportunities too—not least the opportunity to reform VAT (which cannot be touched while we’re in the EU) to enable charities to claim back a lot more tax. Even better, we can end the EU procurement rule which says public commissioners can’t have a preference for non-profit suppliers. The opportunity is right there for the government to create a vast new market for charity-delivered services.

Maybe because it’s a glorious summer day as I write this but I am hugely excited about the potential for our sector.

Austerity is extremely painful. But we should remember that every pound lost to the social sector is one saved for the core functions of the state—which is increasingly only capable of providing acute, reactive support. We are the first line of defence against cuts, which would otherwise fall even harder on the services that simply have to exist: health, children’s care, justice. The undoubted crisis in these sectors would be much worse if charities, and other services, didn’t take a bigger hit.

But we are also the first line of attack against social injustice: without a large, strong charity sector Britain will never push back the perennial problems that can only be properly fixed by the work of independent social action. And that’s why these times, tough as they are, are such an important moment. The shrinking of the state is the opportunity for the social sector to grow—perhaps even to grow back to something of the scale and vitality it had before the state colonised its functions.

The real value of Brexit isn’t the opportunity it brings for the UK government to set new tax and procurement rules for our sector. It’s the change in the weather: we are now in a political climate in which everything is possible. In retrospect the Brown and Cameron years were a frozen era, shocked by the economic crash and with the cause of reform sullied by all the frenetic upheavals of the Blair government. Only in two parts of government, education and welfare, were any major changes undertaken by the Coalition. Now, though, we have a new government – weakened by a bad election, to be sure, and distracted by Brexit, but nevertheless committed to social reform.

The Conservatives say they are committed to addressing ‘burning injustices’ and also to ending ‘the cult of selfish individualism’, as their manifesto puts it; but they are not able, or willing, to do so by rebuilding the mighty state erected (on borrowed money) by Gordon Brown. What else can they do but strengthen civil society, the true answer to injustice and the counter to selfishness?


One glory of our sector is the way it can be so old and new at the same time. There is nothing modern about care and compassion, or even enterprise and innovation—these are the principles that people have brought to the task of institutionalising social solidarity since history began. But modernity comes round again to old ideas and reframes them for today. The buzzwords of our time—collective impact, social investment, strength-based working—are coming together to create a new energy for civil society to rise to the challenges of austerity and social breakdown. The current fashion for focusing on ‘place’ combines the ancient and the modern: all charity was local once, but now we can leverage mighty assets (data, finance, expertise), themselves the products of our globalised world, to exert massive power on a single neighbourhood.

We must remember the real asset of the sector—the impulse in ordinary people, rich and poor, to do the right thing by their neighbours.

But we must remember the real asset—the impulse in ordinary people, rich and poor, to do the right thing by their neighbours. This is already the great, rarely acknowledged resource which our society relies upon. The Office for National Statistics estimates the value of unpaid work in homes and communities to be equivalent to that of the formal economy: voluntary action is the same size as GDP. Fully maximising this—and all the latent social capital that isn’t being realised yet—is the mission for our times.


What is needed for the revolution? I hope the government will seize the opportunities of Brexit and respond to the imperative of the crisis in the public sector by supporting charities to take a greater role in service provision and to deliver even more independent, unmandated social action. But there are three major changes that charities themselves can tackle, if donors and commissioners will help them.

The first is a familiar one: we need to create greater capacity in charities to deliver services, under contract to government and in collaboration with each other and with the public sector. This usually means management capacity, to bid for and manage contracts. But beneath and above this, what’s really needed is greater professionalism.

Sympathise with your charity boss, who is often only in the role because he or she felt an urgent need to ‘do something’ about a social problem—people rarely join a charity because they want to apply their skills as managers. This is a polite way of saying that charity leaders are not always the best leaders; I speak personally, having been one. And then the personal failings of the boss are compounded by those of everyone else: the chaotic beneficiaries, the eccentric donors, and the flaky staff who think a good day’s work consists of some earnest conversations interspersed with tea breaks, and perhaps one difficult interaction with a service user that justifies an early train home and a sickie tomorrow.

Some charities are content to play a niche role in their communities; for them the offer of ‘capacity building’ is a confusing distraction. But many would like to be bigger and more mainstream, less of a poor relation at the feast of civic life and more the chef, host and toastmaster.

If charities want to play the full role they could, everyone who leads, funds and works for them needs to get with the programme. No longer should it be OK for good intentions to obviate good processes, or staff (no matter how kind-hearted and ‘authentic’) to adapt the service to their own convenience. Organisations working in the front line of social need must work deliberately to stop the chaos of their client group, and the eccentricity of their donor base, seeping into their operations.

Second, we need to create a new breed of infrastructure organisation to help charities collaborate effectively, commissioners and donors to achieve a sustained and strategic impact, and beneficiaries to navigate the help and opportunities that the system offers. CVSs often perform a good job as the trade association for local charities. What’s needed as well are organisations that exist for beneficiaries and commissioners, not for the charities. They can agree funding commitments—ideally with the same reporting requirements—from multiple commissioners, manage a shared data platform and support beneficiaries and staff to navigate the network.

Third, we need philosophical alignment. This is where things get political; though perhaps the controversy will not be as great as it might be. Deep down everyone agrees we need a bigger society; that this means less ‘selfish individualism’ but also less state control; and that the critical need is for people to do the right thing. Our job in the social sector, just as in the public sector, is to call the responsible adult out of the addict, the offender, or the young person seeking their way ahead.

This doesn’t mean the whole social sector signing up to a new doctrine of personal and social responsibility. But it does mean that when a collaboration is convened, all the participants are aligned philosophically about where the line between helping a beneficiary and facilitating his or her sense of victimhood is drawn.

This article was first published by NPC as part of their State of the Sector programme essay collection Flipping the narrative: Essays on transformation from the sector’s boldest voices.

7th November 2017

VIDEO: How can civil society​ ​tackle​ ​inequalities​ without​ ​increasing​ ​divisions​?

On 30 October people from across civil society gathered to discuss an important question: how​ ​can​ ​we​ ​continue​ ​to​ ​address specific​ ​inequalities​ ​in​ ​our​ ​society without​ ​increasing​ ​divisions​ ​between communities​ ​and​ ​groups?

The meeting is one of dozens of independently organised Conversations being hosted around the country, the insights of which are playing an important role in shaping the Inquiry. Each conversation brings together people from different backgrounds to discuss the changes they are currently seeing in civil society, and to co-develop visions for what civil society might look like in the future.

While there have been some successes in achieving greater equality in recent decades, explicit divisions between some communities and groups remain. This is often amplified by commentary on marginalised communities which emphasises polarised viewpoints and experiences.

Where civil society does proactively seek to engage with communities that are most likely to experience inequalities, it is most often an invitation to ‘participate’ rather giving them the resources, the means and the power to design and deliver change for themselves.

So how can civil society play a leading role in reducing all​ social and economic inequalities and in building inclusive communities throughout England?

The Conversation touched on a wide range of issues, including how to overcome the problem of siloed working in civil society; methods of improving education; ways to empower communities; and the potential role that funders could play helping civil society organisations work with, rather than against, one another.

Watch the video to hear participants reflect on what was discussed:

3rd November 2017

Civil Society Futures update: seven things we’ve been up to, seven things we’re thinking about

We knew what we didn’t want to do. We were determined from the outset that Civil Society Futures wouldn’t simply sit behind a desk somewhere in London and ask ‘important’ people to tell us what they thought. We didn’t want our inquiry into how English civil society can flourish in a fast changing world to consist simply of a group of powerful panelists meeting in an air-conditioned room for two years, and coming up with a series of recommendations.

We were clear that any attempt to understand the rapid changes unfolding across the country couldn’t be rooted in only one part of it. We were clear that in order to get to grips with what’s happening in civil society, we couldn’t take a narrow view of what it is: while the formal voluntary sector is important, it is only a part of what we’re looking at.

Here’s what we’ve done so far instead, and some of the things it’s got us thinking about.

1) We’ve produced a literature review, a trends map and evidence for a House of Lords inquiry

We started by reading widely around the subject, trying to understand how the country is changing and how civil society is responding. We’ve pulled together a comprehensive literature review and a research report summary, which we’ve used as the basis for a submission to the House of Lords Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement.

We’ve asked people how they think the world is changing, and produced a draft map of 50 trends we think will shape the next decade in England – a living document which we are refining as our research continues, and which we hope will be useful to civil society organisations as they plan for the coming years.  

2) We’re taking a deep dive into eight places

To help us understand what’s happening across England, we’re taking a close look at eight places: Peckham, Barking, Mansfield, Shirebrook, Newcastle, Sunderland, Oldham and a seaside town. In each of these places, we are compiling social data maps, interviewing a range of people, and running workshops with people from the area. At each workshop, a group of participants has volunteered to continue the research by conducting interviews in their area. We’ve talked to people about how their communities are changing, how they’d like them to change, and what power they have to make that happen. We’re basing the process around the principles of participatory action research, which, broadly speaking, encourages collective enquiry and experimentation grounded in social context and lived experience.

3) Over 50 groups are holding Civil Society Futures conversations

We’ve put together a conversations toolkit, allowing people to host their own discussions about the future of civil society, and to tell us what they talked about. So far, there’s over 50 such conversations happening over summer and autumn, with people including major funders, business representatives, people from youth organisations, local CVS’s, charity law experts, as well as community groups dotted around the country. You can host your own conversation – download the toolkit here.

4) We’ve launched our call for contributions

Our call for contributions is a space for you to tell us about your experience, what you think is important and what you think we should be looking at. Please do contribute.

5) We’ve launched and run our online hub

Our online hub, civilsocietyfutures.org, provides a space for a broad range of voices to raise different angles, examine different subjects and raise new concerns. We’ve looked at, among other things, how civil society is structured across Northern Europe, how VR technology allows us to build solidarity, and questions of race and gender in management structures of voluntary organisations. Let us know if you’d like to write something – or like to see us commission someone else.

6) We’ve asked our panellists to provoke us

Our panel and team have met in person three times now, each time in an innovative civil society space: the Birmingham Impact Hub, the Pilgrim Church in Nottingham and Hack Oldham. Our panel is made up of people from a broad range of backgrounds, with different experiences of the world. They’ve each asked a provocative question, to get us all to think more broadly about the future of civil society – ranging from the moral challenges posed by automation to the future of the English charity model.

7) We’ve spoken with people across the country

From the NCVO conference in London to the Co-op Councils gathering in Oldham, we’ve spoken at gatherings of different people across the country, talking about the Inquiry and listening to what they want from us. Upcoming events include the Voluntary Organisation Network North East conference in Newcastle, and the Future Cities gathering in Bristol. Get in touch if you’d like someone from Civil Society Futures to speak at your event.

We’ve got much more coming up

Over the autumn, we’re going to have a number of one to one interviews with a range of people, will be looking at whether our qualitative research leads us to any specific quantitative research on top of the range of polls and surveys already out there, and exploring different ways of visualising civil society.

Throughout all of this, we’ve started to hear some recurring patterns and themes. These will steer our exploration over the next year. Here are a few of them. This isn’t a complete list, and it’s certainly a work in progress. But it gives a flavour of where we’re going next.

How can civil society encourage connection and discourage division within communities?

Lots of people are telling us they fear division and isolation within their communities. They are looking to civil society to play a role in addressing that. Movements and organisations within civil society have often developed around single issues, or in response to inequalities faced by people with particular single identities. We rarely question whether this is an effective model (partly because there is still lots of inequality faced by these groups).

Some of the work around cohesion and integration has shown that social policy, funding and community work that is exclusively provided to particular communities can exacerbate division and tensions between communities. From book groups to community centres, food co-ops to sports clubs, local campaigns to national NGOs, is English civil society structured in such a way as to break down the boundaries of difference between us, or does it reinforce them? In the wake of Brexit, with the spike in hate crime which followed it, the country is searching for a narrative of integration which emerges from the bottom up. From the formal voluntary sector to informal community groups and activist networks, how can we balance the need for oppressed minorities to organise with and champion the rights of others like them, and the need to bridge the gaps in our divided society?

How can anger be channelled into positive change?

Huge numbers of the people we have spoken to have been angry: frustrated with economic changes, with inequality, with the closure of civil space, with austerity, with the feeling of being shut out from decisions, and with the impacts on their lives of specific choices they feel they’ve had no say in.

When organised and channelled well, anger can be useful. It can help deliver change and can lead to hope; change rarely happens without some kind of conflict. But anger sits close to aggression – and, at its worst, can slip into violence. Frustrations expressed in an angry tone can lead people to avert their eyes – and our reactions to anger are tinged by race, class and gender.

If civil society acts as a space for us to negotiate difference and organise for change, how can we as a society get better at encouraging open discussion, at drawing out productive anger? How do we draw on the useful elements of anger and conflict and channel it into change? Where do we draw the line between legitimate rage and harmful aggression? How do we avoid listening most to those who shout loudest?

How can civil society make England more democratic?

A consistent theme of our conversations has been the sense people have that decisions are made about them without them. What’s the role of civil society in contributing to – and ending – this sense of alienation?

Are our civil society institutions democratic themselves? Where does power lie within civil society, and to whom is it accountable? Are civil society institutions innovating and trialling new forms of democratic process? Should our large membership organisations be learning more from those building tools at the cutting edge of radical democracy? Is civil society a training ground for democracy? To what extent do the structures of civil society provide space and opportunities for people to rebuild our skills as citizens rather than just consumers?

Does civil society hold power to account where it is actually located in England now? Why isn’t the formal voluntary sector more active in demanding democratic reform? Should it be?

What is the potential for mutual aid? And what are its limits?

We’ve heard that human relationships and exchange really matter to people and so our attention is on mutual aid and self help: what is its potential, and what are its limits? What might be the new structures and systems that would enable mutual aid to flourish in the future?

How does civil society relate to the places in which it exists?

We already knew that people are increasingly interested and focused on place. But this is easy to say and hard to do. As local authorities shape their roles and their services, what does this mean for places? How do people understand the narrative and identity of the place they live in, and what does civil society contribute? How do we share leadership in places, but still take responsibility? After the tragedy of Grenfell Tower we know we need to think even more deeply about the bonds of place, and the shared responsibilities we have.

What stories do we need to tell about the past, present and future?

In our workshops across the country, we’ve heard anger, fear and loss. What are the stories that we can tell about ourselves, our groups and society in order to counter this?

How can we best acknowledge, celebrate, grieve and learn from the past? What narratives do we need to develop in order to create a shared sense of ownership over the future?

How can the inspiring stories we don’t hear be recognised and spread? What does it mean for people to confidently tell their own story?

We’ve heard that language really matters. So what is the language that can help us create change, to really shift power? How can we reclaim our narratives and the power and ability to act?

If work no longer creates a sense of belonging, can civil society?

The nature of work is changing rapidly. Automation has already destroyed hundreds of traditional low-skill jobs and is now eating away at high-skilled work. This is a huge economic issue, but it’s something else too: for millions of people, employment is key to identity. It gives us a sense of purpose and belonging. As work disappears, can civil society find ways to replace that key sense of identity? What examples are there of this already?

This is just a sample. We’re also looking at the growing need for community resilience, the impact of digitalisation, the ways that civic space are being limited, and much more.

Stay in touch: like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and sign up to this email list to receive our monthly newsletter. We look forward to hearing from you.

25th October 2017

Playback: A business perspective on Civil Society

What do business leaders think about the future of civil society?

The basics:

Who?  Pioneer business partners from the Forum for the Future network, including representatives form Unilever, Boots, Kingfisher, Marks & Spencers, Innovate UK, Crown Estate

Where?  Elmley Nature Reserve, Kent 

When?  18th Jul 2017

Why?  Part of an annual ‘away day’ with this group who meet regularly and learn together about how to pursue their sustainability ambitions.

What?  Hosting a business focused Civil Society Futures Conversation


What was most surprising / memorable for you about this session/conversation/event?

It was interesting just how difficult people found it to think about what civil society meant for them. One person remarked: “I’ve never thought of these things as civil society – it’s just ‘living’”

Is using the term civil society is a barrier to further participation and understanding of the area?

What were the dilemmas of tensions you noticed in this session/conversation/event?

There is no one approach for businesses to engage with civil society. Where organisations do have a working relationship, it’s important to question and evaluate why you have these relationships you have on a regular basis – it’s easy to forget why you have them, what your shared purpose is and if it still makes sense to relate in the same way. They spoke about how it is also hard to extract yourself from these relationships and to have honest/difficult conversations about what to do and where to go next.

Some of the businesses present admitted that they made a worse decision (from a sustainability point of view) because of vocal groups / reputational risk of taking that choice. It seems that single issue campaigning is very polarising and hard campaigning creates fear and also prevents organisations from making strong statements for fear of being ambushed.

Share one other thing that became evident for you in this session/conversation/event?

Inevitably one of the major differences between business and civil society is the ‘market’ dynamics at play. Being part of markets forces businesses to look at things from a certain way. But there is a need for organisations/perspectives that work out of the force of market dynamics – which often is where civil society comes it. Although of course many civil society organisations are subject to these same market dynamics.

So what?

What does this tell you about civil society in the future?

There’s an aspiration for business and civil society to form a different sort of relationship from the one we have now. Here’s some of the vision statements that emerged from the session:

In 2030 it will be normal for business and civil society to stand up for what they believe in

in 2030 business and civil society will be working together in a challenging yet cooperative way

in 2030 we will find valuable roles and tensions between business and civil society to address societal needs

In 2030 civil society organisation to identify spaces where business don’t cover – collaboratively work on them to fill the gap

In 2030 see civil society led innovation funded by business (rather than business led innovation funded by civil society)

In 2030 business to share the value of civil society in participating and creating better lives for everyone

In 2030 business and civil society working together playing to strengths to contribute to common opportunities

In 2030 businesses see themselves as civil society

In 2030 all businesses will be benefit corporations that have a social and economic purpose solving a societal need

In 2030 civil society and business would be operating in a symbiotic relationship and found a harmony

In 2030 business will have a symbiotic relationship with civil society to create shared value


1st August 2017

Playback: Marks Gate

Civil Society Futures Marks Gate workshop

The basics:

Who? Active citizens of Marks Gate, Barking and Dagenham

What? Discussing the future of Marks Gate, and the forces shaping it

Where? St Marks Church, Barking.

When? 6:30pm, 27th June, 2017

Why?  This was part of Goldsmith’s research

Insights: (what stood out for you?)

It was clear that people in the workshop had a range of shared concerns, particularly a lack of opportunities for young people. There was also concern for community safety, as some people saw knife crime as a barrier to engaging young people in civil society. While there was evidence of a strong civil society ecosystem, it was apparent that some key organisations and places had disappeared in recent years due to growing resource pressures.

So what?

What does this tell you about civil society in the future?

A key challenge identified was a lack of funding for civil society organisations, which means that a lot of activity in the area relies on volunteers who can easily get burnt out or overworked. As a result, some important civil society institutions have disappeared from the area in recent years. Looking ahead, civil society faces the challenge of trying to grow, adapt and expand in a difficult economic climate with limited public funds available.

What are the drivers (or barriers) of change in civil society that came out for you?

Drivers: There is a strong community spirit and a shared desire to create more opportunities for young people.

Barriers: High levels of deprivation and debt, violent crime, high housing costs, government spending cuts and rapid changes in the local housing market.

What are the new emerging models/forms of civil society?

North Meets South Big Local (NMSBL) is a partnership which works to strengthen and grow the local community. Each year the group receives £1m from the Local Trust to spend on what the local area needs. To prioritise spending, NMSBL holds an annual ‘Dragon’s Den’ event where members of the community submit ideas and vote on the projects they’d like to see start up in the area. The picture below shows what the community priorites were in last year’s Dragon’s Den.


What is the question you are now left with?

How can civil society grow and expand in places like Marks Gate which face a challenging socio-economic environment?


29th June 2017

Peckham: Playback

Civil Society Futures Peckham workshop

The basics:

Who? Active citizens of Peckham

What? Discussing the future of Peckham, and the forces shaping it

Where? All Saints Church, Peckham

When? 6:30pm, 23rd May, 2017

Why?  This was part of Goldsmith’s research

Insights: (what stood out for you?)

It was clear that people in the workshop had a range of shared concerns, and were particularly keen to preserve Peckham’s diversity in the light of rising housing costs. They saw civil society/community activism as how they organised citizens to ensure their interests were acted on.

So what? 

What does this tell you about civil society in the future?

Peckham was one of our ‘hot spots’, with huge amounts of community activity. Everyone there seemed to be involved in a huge range of things, and to have remarkably shared concerns despite their diversity of backgrounds.

What are the drivers (or barriers) of change in civil society that came out for you?

Driver: People were motivated to stand together in a changing world

Barrier: Rapid changes in the local economy/housing market.

What is working really well in civil society today?

People organise together, and always will.

What do you see declining?

With the London housing market on the rampage, communities are being torn apart as young people are forced out of the areas they grew up in. This makes community building harder.

What are the new emerging models/forms of civil society?

As ever, online organisation is most powerful among people who already know each other

What is the question you are now left with?
Will Peckham retain its amazing sense of community, or will it become another investment vehicle for global capital?

31st May 2017