It takes courage and conviction to point out to incumbents across the voluntary sector that what has served well to get to today is not what will see us through tomorrow. Julia Unwin, in The Civil Society Futures inquiry, has shown precisely this.
In perceptively listening to a wide range of inputs, Julia and the panel describe the ‘PACT’ – power dynamics, accountability, connection, and trust – that will be required to lead and renew civil society. In framing the urgency and opportunity ahead, it makes clear that we are facing a transformation from the current landscape as dramatic as Ian Goldin’s highlights in “Age of Discovery” in which he describes a ‘second renaissance’.
However, it is questionable how prepared our sector is for this disruption and how ready we are to re-envision inherited but tired business models. At The Children’s Society, this is a future we have been exploring over the past few years and we are glad to have made some important progress towards it. We have deliberately exited from lower-impact, public sector commissioned services. In place, we are developing an approach and business model deploying a focus on service design and changing systems that can more radically disrupt cycles of disadvantage faced by young people.
This journey hasn’t been easy, and is by no means complete, but has required us to reflect deeply on our core purpose as an organisation, challenge ourselves on the best way to achieve the highest possible impact, open up to building partnership and alliances in pursuit of problem solving, and then re-engineer our organisation to make that happen. In pursuit of greater impact for young people, this has required us to navigate through uncharted waters beset with cross-currents and counter-incentives, and willingly embrace the leadership risk and vulnerabilities that come along with the journey.
The Civil Society Futures inquiry raises difficult questions of all leaders. If we see solutions beyond which the state can or should offer, how have we become so unquestioningly dependent on public sector outsourcing? If we see so many deeply entrenched societal problems, why are we so nostalgic about a bygone golden age of civil society? If we see abundant resource and opportunity in the human condition, why do we allow our narrative to be strongly defined around deficit, scarcity and yesterday’s discourse? And if we think everyone else is so in need of change, why can we be so conservatively resistant to our own revision?
Julia’s work is more than challenging to us all. It hints at a substantial reset and course correction – a discontinuity in prevailing leadership and social models. Renewal is not sufficient. Leadership in the PACT will require the intellectual dexterity and emotional adroitness to disrupt many of our own inherited organisational securities and ways of working.
It was George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “The reasonable man [sic] adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” For social progression in turbulent times, now may not be the time for a reasonable civil society; the PACT offers a compelling framework to navigate the next phase of transformation.