It could be dangerously easy to be complacent about the future of charities and civil society. Civil society has a long history or responding to and meeting need, so surely it can just continue as it always has done? Not so, says Julia Unwin’s independent inquiry, Civil Society Futures. This proposed new approach is a wakeup call for the sector. And I say ‘approach’ as this isn’t a dry report or a lecture full of doom and gloom. It is “a map to guide us into the future.”
The inquiry presents us all with a challenge; to sign up to a new PACT “for civil society, by civil society” to help us change ourselves and our communities for the future. This PACT is a call to action – for us to rethink how we embody Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust.
At the heart of this new approach is a shift of Power. And this is what I want to focus on here, as it is something I have been reflected on as in my new role as Chief Exec at Action for Children. After two years of research and speaking to hundreds of people, the big message coming out of the inquiry is that we need to change the narrative of ‘us and them.’ This is about breaking away from any remnants of the Victorian image of charity, the rich and powerful giving away their crumbs to the poor. This is about, rebalancing power, sharing, indeed giving up control.
And it couldn’t be more timely. We are living in an age when power and leadership has never been under such scrutiny, with such a degree of mistrust of those ‘at the top’. Political leadership in Westminster and across the pond is being judged and, in many cases, found wanting. And within our own sector we have seen increased scrutiny and several high-profile leadership failures. So, it is right that we re-examine this.
Heiman’s and Timms book New Power, describes ‘old power’ as “held by a few. Once gained it is jealously guarded.” But ‘new power’ is “open, participatory and peer driven…the goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.” It is such a change in dynamic that is at the heart of this new PACT. Power should not be about ‘power over’ but about ‘power with’. In my new role at Action for Children I have seen how important that will be to future success. Too many of the families we work with don’t have a voice in our society, and we want to change this.
This new inquiry is a response to the multiple challenges to charities’ existence: public trust has been dented, through social media people are acting themselves on issues that many charities were established to respond to. Using new technology people no longer wait for someone else to provide them with what they need. They are going out and finding it and doing it themselves. We shouldn’t be afraid of this – it will help to bring about that change in power that we need. There is so much information, the canvas so fast moving, the players so multiple that a small elite cannot control it. But it has implications for how we work in the future. The question of how we collaborate and connect is now more urgent than ever before. PACT asks us how we can ensure that we don’t become too remote from each other and our communities and asks us to pledge to build deeper and closer connections.
At Action for Children we see every day that the deep-seated challenge facing children and families in society are not going to be solved by insular thinking. The only way it is going to happen is by putting those children and families at the heart of finding the solutions, putting their voices, first and foremost.