Thinking about the future of civil society was never going to be easy, and doing so at a time of political turmoil is certainly challenging. But it is also inspiring, and illuminating. Almost every conversation raises new questions and leaves me musing on so many different dilemmas.
For example, dilemma 1: Where are the boundaries? On the one hand, there is pressure do everything we can to avoid blurring boundaries, and to make sure that we are crystal clear about our definitions: what is charitable, what isn’t? When is something for profit, and when does it just happen to be generating a surplus? On the other hand, we are an organic sector.
We grow and develop at times of change, and we really welcome everyone focused on social value. Are the businesses which sign up to B corps part of civil society? To understand something we must first define it, but do we really want to draw boundaries? Our capacious and welcoming nature is surely our greatest strength.
Or dilemma 2. Civil society is one of the places where we express affiliation and associational life is our great, and growing, strength. Many voluntary organisations invest heavily and successfully in developing an active and engaged membership. But trustees are charged with governing for today’s beneficiaries as well as future generations. Does that create impossible conflicts within organisations with growing and more engaged and voluble memberships? Do we risk the engagement of members who quite naturally will have demands and aspirations for now? Are members our stakeholders, or are they are owners?
Or dilemma 3. We know that reputation is a hugely valued asset. We gamble with it at our peril. And yet active civil society will always want to empower people to take action. Our risk frameworks and control systems may protect our reputation. But do they also dampen enthusiasm and engagement and make it difficult for people to take initiative? Does our proper desire to be business-like and professional, stop us from allowing people to take action?