I don’t know where other respondents read their copies of the inquiry’s report but I finished mine at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. I think she’d approve of its call for ‘a new generation of leadership which understands power’ but would remind us to study the lessons of the generations who already did.
The Montgomery bus boycott was, after all, collective action in the first (and finest) tradition of civic action. As the inquiry’s paper reminds us, activism has been as integral to creating change as direct assistance ever since the Industrial Revolution. Save the Children’s Eglantyne Jebb started both a relief fund and a campaign when she was arrested for protesting the government’s food blockade of countries recently defeated in WW1. Shelter’s full title remains Shelter, the National Campaign for Homeless People. And the UK’s international NGOs have never had more impact on poverty than when we’ve campaigned together.
It seems to me, therefore, that the inquiry’s call for us to recognise that ‘civil society is political’ is not made in the hope that charities and civic groups will transform ourselves, but instead that we will rediscover ourselves. At our best we have always been people powered, not simply in the sense that we rely on the love and sacrifice of volunteers (the people part), but also because we believe people are stronger when they stand together (the powered part).
That we’ve done this before does not, of course, mean it will be easy to do it today. Many of the more established charities have been experimenting with other forms of social change. Scope and Stonewall have been leading the pack in working with advertisers and football respectively. These partnerships are pioneering but also mask that big charity brands have been overtaken as mass mobilisers by digital disruptors like Change.org. There are plenty of people who don’t consider that a problem and would welcome a bifurcated sector with charities delivering services and social movements focussing on policy change. That division of labour would, in my view, weaken us all.
At a recent parliamentary event inquiry chair Julia Unwin dubbed the biggest civil society organisations ‘the Charity FTSE’. The inquiry paper rightly identifies that being big carries the risk of becoming ‘bureaucratic, disconnected … and too close to government or corporations’. But, like the real FTSE, size also brings clout. At Save the Children I’ve recently become more explicit about the three kinds of wins I think organisations like ours should help secure. The first is the ‘defensive win’, where our involvement in an original campaign victory makes us well placed to be its guardian, as is the case in defending aid spending. The second is the ‘wedge win’, where by winning a single specific demand, like protecting lone child refugees, we’ve secured the thin end of a wedge in a wider struggle for refugee rights. The third is the ‘agenda-setting win’, where organisations with a long track-record (in our case stretching back a century) are well placed to tackle the very biggest challenges as we are about to do with a global campaign on the rules of war.
None of which is to say the so-called ‘legacy organisations’ can’t still learn a lot from the start-ups. Here in the US I’ve been humbled by the March for Our Lives founders who’ve been building a gun control movement in honour of their friends murdered in the Parkland shooting. I was so inspired by one of their get out the vote rallies in Dallas – the sort of grassroots effort that doesn’t make the headlines but does make the difference. As one of them tweeted last week, “a group of kids on a living room floor organized the largest protest in American history … a 63 day bus tour … over 200 chapters … and defeated 27 NRA-backed candidates”.
If that doesn’t answer the inquiry’s call for a new generation of leadership I don’t know what does. If those of us with the backing of 100 year old institutions and those of us with just our living room floors can harness the strength of each to the benefit of both a much better world is surely within our grasp.